As Congress debates health care, and opponents of the current proposal for reform label it "socialist," one of their chief villains is naturally Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. A Google search for "Nancy Pelosi socialist" turns up 630,000 or so hits. I'm not an ardent admirer of Pelosi, but observing the contumely heaped on her this month made me think of one of her predecessors, Helen Gahagan Douglas.
I have just published a biography of Douglas by the veteran journalist and historian Sally Denton, and I confess I was fascinated to learn about Douglas's life, of which I had known little--except that she lost a famously bitter Senate election to Richard Nixon, who portrayed her as, not just a socialist, but a communist sympathizer. It's unfair that Douglas is known mainly for losing to Nixon: she was a remarkable woman, who went to Barnard and then became one of the biggest stars on Broadway. Gifted with a beautiful voice as well as acting talent, she even performed opera and thought about becoming a prima donna--but instead followed her husband Melvyn Douglas to Hollywood.
The plight of the poor during the Depression--and the urging of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt--moved Douglas to enter politics. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 1944, becoming one of the earliest women in the chamber. There she was a staunch and fervent supporter of the New Deal and other liberal causes like disarmament, until she ran into the Nixon buzzsaw. (By the way, she also carried on a long-lasting affair with a young Congressman named Lyndon Johnson.)
When you think about the resistance, condescension, and outright abuse that has confronted contemporary figures like Pelosi or Hillary Rodham Clinton, Helen Douglas's achievements of six decades ago seem all the more impressive. For more on Helen Gahagan Douglas and Sally Denton's biography The Pink Lady, including an interview with Sally, visit this page.