U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Westchester) announced in October of 2019 she wouldn’t seek a new term. Her retirement concluded a noteworthy 32-year career in Congress, during which she became the first woman to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee (past chairs included James Garfield, later President, and Joseph Cannon, later Speaker).
Rep. Lowey is only the latest noteworthy female Representative from New York. The list includes Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, who ran for President in 1972; Geraldine Ferraro, Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1984; Katharine St. George, a first cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt who represented Tuxedo Park as a Republican for 18 years; and Bella Abzug, the brassy co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus who was the subject of a Broadway show.
But the line started in November 1928 with the election of New York’s first female representative, Ruth Baker Pratt. Born in 1877 in Ware, Massachusetts, the daughter of a wealthy cotton merchant, young Ruth Sears Baker majored in mathematics at Wellesley College and in 1903, after studying the violin in Europe, married John Teele Pratt, a Standard Oil heir, lawyer, philanthropist and theater and music impresario. They had five children and split time between a brick-and-limestone townhouse on Manhattan’s East 61 st Street and The Manor House, a massive 55-acre estate in Glen Cove on Long Island’s Gold Coast.
Pratt was “no insipid society hostess,” writes Tom Miller of The Daytonian in Manhattan history blog. He notes that she was active in political and social issues, often hosting cause-related affairs at her townhouse, including a 1919 speech by Federal Reserve Gov. Benjamin Strong to a women’s group “on the coming Victory Loan,” and a 1922 meeting of the National Consumers’ League “to discuss blanket bills of the National Women’s party.” By the mid-1920s, Ruth Pratt had served as vice chair of the re-election committee for Republican Rep. Ogden Mills, and associate leader for the 15th Assembly District Republican Club on Manhattan’s “Silk Stocking” Upper East Side.
Political insiders soon began touting her as candidate for New York City alderman, and in 1925 she won the GOP nod to be the first-ever woman on the 65-member body. She campaigned vigorously.
Described in a New York Times profile as “a woman with gray hair and a young face,” the 48-year-old went door to door, talking of how “we need a woman on the Board of Aldermen… I am willing to go down there and do the best I can. Those men should be helped out by a different viewpoint.” The Times said she had “rapped upon almost every door in the district and visited every shop. She has canvassed delicatessens, butcher shops, drug stores until she possess an intimate acquaintance with her constituency.”
Her opponent , James A. O’Gorman Jr., son of a former U.S. Senator, was the personification of the Democratic party machine, Tammany Hall. Wherever he went, the Times reported, Pratt had already been there. In November, she defeated O’Gorman by more than 2,500 votes, and in January 1926, became the first woman seated on the city Board of Aldermen. New to the role, she wasn’t shy expressing herself as a highly visible opponent of Tammany and Mayor Jimmy Walker and his free-spending ways, calling his “the worst administration in history.”
In 1927, her husband John suffered a fatal heart attack at his Standard Oil Building desk at the age of 53. She inherited his estimated $10 million fortune (about $150 million in today’s dollars). But Ruth Baker Pratt wasn’t destined to be a housebound widow. And she wasn’t done being a groundbreaker.
Re-elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1927, she described her political drive. “It is a great satisfaction for me,” the Times reported her as saying, “to wade in and fight, fight, fight for better housing conditions, for the abolishing of some of the tenements that are unfit for animals, much less for human beings.”
While serving on the mayor’s wartime food commission after World War I, Pratt met Herbert Hoover, then head of the National Food Administration. As early as 1920, the first year U.S. women could vote, she supported his presidential ambitions, and by 1928, she was vice chair of Hoover’s New York City campaign committee. In that presidential election year, New York Republicans also sought to take back the Silk Stocking congressional seat they had lost in 1926, when Ogden Mills stepped aside after three terms in a failed try for Governor. In July Pratt announced she would oppose the doubly named state Assemblyman Phelps Phelps in the September GOP primary. Relying on her indefatigable campaigning and a nearly 1,800-vote margin her home turf, the 15th Assembly District, she defeated Phelps by just under 1,900 votes – 62% to 38%.
For the general election, Pratt ran as something of a “dry” – favoring modest modifications to Prohibition vs. Tammany’s candidate, former Parks Commissioner and “wet” Philip Berolzheimer, an executive with his family’s Eagle Pencil Co. On November 7, 1928, as Hoover racked up a landslide Presidential win over New York Governor Al Smith, Pratt felt comfortable enough by 8:30 pm to declare victory. Said Pratt of her historic moment, “I did not run as a woman… but as a citizen.” She won by approximately 3,400 votes out of 69,000 votes vast.
Pratt’s win brought to eight the total number of women in the House. Opined a Times editorial, “Their husbands’ popularity and the sentiment of their succession undoubtedly helped them win their way to Washington. Pratt quickly emerged as a spokesperson for Hoover in the state. She narrowly won re-election in 1930, tallying only a 650-vote plurality over Democratic magistrate Louis Brodsky and the Socialist candidate, newspaperman Heywood Broun, amid a national Democratic landslide following the October 1929 stock market crash. Her win made a difference as Republicans maintained a tenuous one- to two-seat House majority in the 72nd Congress.
In the new Congress, Pratt remained a fiscal conservative in the teeth of the Great Depression, denouncing the 1932 General Relief Bill as a “crowning folly,” though she teamed with Reed Smoot, U.S. senator from Utah, to sponsor the Pratt-Smoot Act. Signed into law by President Hoover on March 3, 1931, the Act provided $100,000 to provide blind adults with books. The expanded and amended Books for the Blind program is still in existence today.
The winds of political change that began to blow after 1929 gained force in the early 1930s, and in New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1932 landslide presidential victory was a generational shift, with the Republicans losing more than 100 seats in the House, including Ruth Baker Pratt’s. Insurance executive Theodore Peyser, a political novice handpicked by Tammany Leader John F. Curry, defeated the two-term incumbent Pratt by more than 5,500 votes.
After her defeat, Pratt wasn’t done with politics, though she would never again hold elective office. Despite party murmurings of a run for New York City Mayor in 1933 (a race won by fellow Republican Fiorello LaGuardia), she stayed on the electoral sidelines, though she remained a member of the Republican National Committee from 1929 to 1943, was a delegate to the Republican National Conventions in 1936 and 1940, and served as president of the Woman’s National Republican Club in the mid-1940s. In 1947, she sued to evict the Soviet Union’s consulate from her old East 61 st Street townhouse, which it had rented since 1934. In the red-hot early days of the Cold War, the former Republican congresswoman’s home was used, according to journalist and author Barnes Carr, as “the control center for Soviet spying in North America.” The consulate was closed in 1948, and the townhouse was later torn down to make way for a public plaza.
The pioneering, resolute Ruth Sears Baker Pratt lived on into the 1960s at the Manor House (now a conference center hotel). She died on August 23, 1965, one day before her 88th birthday. Her obituary was relegated to page 36 of that day’s Times.
The 17th Congressional District remained an important downstate seat, and Pratt’s successors included two future mayors, John Lindsay and Ed Koch. But for more than 50 years, no woman held the seat, which has since been redistricted, until its current occupant: another history-maker named Nita Lowey.
Photos, from above: Ruth Baker Pratt; Standard Oil heir, John Teele Pratt, husband of Ruth Baker Pratt; President Herbert Hoover; and the Manor House, home to the Pratts on Long Island’s Gold Coast.