Helen Gahagan Douglas


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(b. Boonton, New Jersey, 25 Nov. 1900; d. New York City, 28 June 1980)

US; member of the US House of Representatives 1944–51 Douglas's father was a wealthy engineer and she grew up in Brooklyn. Educated at Barnard College, she pursued her ambition to become an actress by appearing in plays even during her college years. After Barnard she devoted herself to acting and appeared in a number of theatre and opera productions under the name Helen Gahagan between 1922 and 1938.

Douglas became active in politics after moving from New York to Los Angeles. A supporter of the New Deal, in California she took up a number of liberal causes including environmentalism, civil rights, and the cause of labour. She also served in a number of party posts, including Democratic National committeewoman (1940–4) and vice-chairman of the Democratic state central committee, as well as on the advisory committee of the Works Progress Administration. Her celebrity status enhanced her political appeal and in 1944 she was elected to the House of Representatives for the California 14th District and secured re-election in 1946 and 1948. While in Congress she highlighted those causes which she had championed earlier and was a strong supporter of Franklin Roosevelt's and Harry Truman's domestic policies. On foreign policy issues Douglas resisted what she saw as anti-Communist paranoia—by voting against the reauthorization of the House Un-American Activities Committee and attempting to substitute United Nations action for American intervention against Communism in Europe.

In 1950 Douglas ran for the Senate against an incumbent Senator (Sheridan Downey), associated with oil interests, and Richard Nixon the Republican candidate. Douglas won the primary but lost the general election as a result of a vicious campaign in which Nixon implied that Douglas was a fellow-traveller if not an outright Communist, accusations made more damaging in the light of the North Korean attack on South Korea in June 1950. The tactics used by Nixon earned him the label ‘tricky Dick’, although in fact both Douglas and Nixon were criticized for their campaign propaganda. Douglas did not seek further elective office but continued to write and lecture. She was appointed by Lyndon Johnson as special ambassador at the inauguration of President Tubman of Liberia in 1964.

Subjects: Politics.

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