Julia Letlow lost her 17-year-old brother in a car accident during her junior year of college in 2002, a moment that changed everything for her personally and professionally. Then a budding academic, she tried to find answers.
“My first inclination is to look toward the research and the literature and just really dig in,” she said. “There wasn’t much out there on sibling grief.”
She kept digging as she earned her Ph.D. in communications with a dissertation focused on how families cope with unexpected loss. The tragedy that shook her family ultimately shaped her vocation.
“That was really twofold for me. I was able to fulfill a deficit in the literature by publishing about sibling grief, but also it was cathartic,” she said.
Almost 20 years since her brother’s death, Letlow is again diving into her work. In December, her husband died of COVID-19 complications five days before the Louisiana Republican could be sworn in for the start of the new Congress. Losing Rep.-elect Luke J. Letlow was “another catastrophic” turning point in her life, she said.
As she did after 2002, Letlow is trying to memorialize a loved one, but this time it means running for the seat her late husband won.
Letlow could join a small group of lawmakers in congressional history who succeeded their deceased spouses. If elected, she will become one of two such members in the 117th Congress, along with California Democrat Doris Matsui. (A potential third member is Texas Republican Susan Wright, who is running in a special election to replace her late husband, Rep. Ron Wright, following his death from COVID-19 complications.)
According to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, a total of 47 women have been appointed or elected to fill vacancies in Congress created when their husbands died.
A century ago, that was a key path for women entering politics, according to Debbie Walsh, the center’s director. Widows were seen as dutiful rather than threatening, which helped them break the gender barrier.
The trend evolved over time. Some widows served short terms, while others went on to long political careers, like Louisiana Democrat Lindy Boggs or Maine Republican Margaret Chase Smith. Both had significant multidecade tenures in Congress, and Chase Smith was the first woman to actively seek the presidential nomination of a major party.
Widows no longer amount to a distinct political class. But the terrible position comes with some advantages at the polls, like name recognition. “There are a lot of things in her favor in a race like this,” Walsh said of candidates like Letlow, who faces a special election this weekend and a possible runoff next month.
There are no guarantees. Last Congress, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings became the rare grieving spouse to lose her bid for office. Instead of assuming the seat of her late husband, Maryland Democrat Elijah E. Cummings, she saw it go to his predecessor Kweisi Mfume.
Proving yourself is a constant battle, former California Rep. Mary Bono said. When her husband died in a skiing accident in 1998, she won the race to replace him with help from Republicans who winnowed the field. Nothing about it was easy, she said.
“You have to prove your mettle to the voters,” she said in a phone interview. “I think as a widow, there’s this accusation that there’s this sympathy factor. Perhaps that’s true, but it’s certainly not enough to win on. … These candidates are going to have to campaign and prove themselves in order to win, and every two years they’re going to have to continue to prove themselves.”
Another Californian, Democrat Lois Capps, lost her husband nine months into his first term. Days after he collapsed at the airport and died of a heart attack, she decided to run. She described the pain of that decision in her memoir, “Keeping Faith in Congress.”
A lot of voters know how it feels to lose a spouse or face hardship as a single parent, and tapping into that can be powerful, she wrote. Sometimes, adversity becomes an “asset.”
“I felt a certain sturdiness despite the turmoil in my life during that first campaign,” Capps wrote. “I told one group of supporters that it felt as though they were carrying me through.”
That sentiment resonates with Bono. “Throwing myself into that kind of work, that quickly, definitely soothed the pain of losing my husband,” she said. “It kept me busy, it gave me purpose, it gave me a new identity.”
The feeling never quite went away, even as she built her own legacy in Congress. Bono originally set out to “pick up the mantle” from her husband, but that gradually grew into a new list of priorities. Losing reelection in 2012 almost felt like a release.
The day after the election, her whole family joined her at home, just as they had done after her husband died. “Once we could finally grieve, the grieving process was now over,” Bono said.
“That was 15 years of a treadmill,” she said. “The funeral was over in a weird way.”