In 1938, then in Illinois' 18th Congressional District, voters elected Jessie Sumner to Congress — only the third woman from the state to serve in the House. Sumner, running on a vigorous anti-New Deal platform, defeated U.S. Rep. James A. Meeks, a Danville Democrat, in a race that attracted national attention. Well, Sumner attracted national attention with good reason.
There's been some excitement in local political circles that the 13th Congressional District, which includes Champaign-Urbana, could make history next year and elect a female U.S. representative — either Republican Erika Harold of Urbana or Democrat Ann Callis of Edwardsville. They're both on the primary election ballot.
If Callis or Harold is elected to Congress in November, Champaign-Urbana would only be 76 years behind its neighbors in Vermilion, Iroquois, Kankakee, Edgar, Clark and Cumberland counties.
In 1938, then in Illinois' 18th Congressional District, they elected Jessie Sumner to Congress — only the third woman from the state to serve in the House. Sumner, running on a vigorous anti-New Deal platform, defeated U.S. Rep. James A. Meeks, a Danville Democrat, in a race that attracted national attention.
Well, Sumner attracted national attention with good reason.
Jessie Sumner, born on a farm in Iroquois County in 1898, was accustomed to making history: She was the first American woman to study law at Oxford University in England, the first woman elected a county judge in Illinois and, according to her, the first woman elected county judge in any state.
She won election to the bench in December 1937 despite her Democratic opponent's slogan, "You don't want a woman for your county judge!"
That apparently was before such things were tested before focus groups.
Sumner won almost 2-to-1. A few months later she began campaigning for the Republican nomination for Congress, going up against two men from the more populous Vermilion County.
"I hold court in the mornings, sometimes all day, and speak at night but I don't talk about court," she told the Chicago Tribune. "I have a fight on, too. My difficulty is not being able to campaign during the day."
She won the Republican primary and later the general election.
In virtually every newspaper story about her, whether by a man or a woman, the author made some comment about her appearance.
"Miss Sumner is 39, small and auburn haired," reported the Tribune.
A front-page story in the Christian Science Monitored quoted her saying, "I'll dress for Congress, just as I dress as a judge and as I dressed as a lawyer. The clothes will be the very same clothes, too."
The Washington Post wrote, "When Judge Jessie Sumner of Iroquois County, Ill., was a pert young blonde studying law at Oxford ..."
Even The New York Times fell victim: "The spirited woman with the blonde hair and the blue eyes ..."
When she came to Congress in January 1939, Sumner was 40 years old, the youngest woman in the House at a spectacularly historic time. The Depression and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal were fading but war was on the horizon. Sumner had witty opinions on everything and the newspapers were so eager to report the quotes of this bright, young woman that they regularly called them "Sumnerisms."
On Roosevelt: "Don't ask me to say anything about President Roosevelt. I came to bury Caesar, not to praise him."
On FDR's big spending: "What I believe is the biggest issue will not come before Congress. It is demobilizing the far-spreading, costly army of government employees."
On the difference between a liberal and a conservative: "The conservatives are the 'whys,' the liberals are the 'why-nots.'"
On the possibility of war: "What might seem to be the biggest issue before this Congress is how to keep out of war. But the (federal) departments appear to be following their own private foreign policy and Congress hasn't much to say about it."
On what she'd wear to a Congressional reception: "I'll be turned out in white and look like another Washington Monument."
"She was a hoot," recalled Sumner's niece, Circuit Judge Susan Sumner Tungate of Cissna Park, a judge in Illinois' 21st Circuit, which includes Kankakee and Iroquois counties. "She had her own opinions and wasn't afraid to stand up to anybody. She was a fiery little person."
Tungate was born in 1947, Sumner's last year in Congress, and remembers her aunt only as a former judge and congresswoman who returned home to run the family bank in Sheldon, a position she held until shortly before her death in 1994.
"I don't think she ever thought she was a big shot," said Tungate. "If introduced here she'd say, 'I am Jessie Sumner.' That's all. I would go on trips with her and she would never say, 'I am Jessie Sumner, the retired congressman.' She never said she was a retired judge, she never said anything like that."
Tungate said she believes Sumner wanted to serve in Congress simply because "she was not happy with the way things were going in Washington."
She may have been one of FDR's (and Harry Truman's) most persistent foes. She hit a plan to do a national census of housing in 1940, saying that women would hate the idea of enumerators "snooping in their closets."
In January 1943, a little more than a year into the U.S. involvement in World War II, she introduced a resolution calling for an investigation of peace terms. She spoke out against a "national service" plan that ultimately could conscript women. In 1943 she voted against a resolution calling for postwar collaboration with other nations; two years later she opposed the United Nations Participation Act.
"You know, of course, that this measure gives congressional authority for surrendering the American people to an all-powerful world supergovernment which will be controlled by imperialistic foreign governments, England and Russia," she said.
When I suggested to her niece that Sumner was a member of the tea party before there was one, she disagreed.
"No, I don't think she would be. She would stay within her party and say, 'Look, we need to reconsider this, this and this.' She understood the two-party system and how important it was that both of them were strong. She didn't hate Democrats. We had relatives who were Democrats," said Tungate.
Of her isolationism, she said, "She was in high school when World War I started. Her friends — the guys she played with because she would play baseball with the boys and jacks with the girls and whatever — it's a small town she was coming from, they lost people in World War I.
"She thought it was terrible that these people would come home and they had lost an arm or a leg or they had gotten mustard gassed. That impressed her. I think it really got her and stayed with her the rest of her life."
Jessie Sumner decided suddenly in 1946 that she wouldn't run again. Her reason was a secret kept until today: she thought she was dying.
"She wasn't feeling well and as the story goes — this part is family legend — she went to a doctor in Washington, D.C., and they said that she had cancer. So she finished her term and then went to Mayo (Clinic). They did surgery and sent her home and said there's not much we can do. And she said, 'Forget that.'
"There was a Dr. Kellogg of the cereal fame in Battle Creek, Michigan, and he had a clinic or farm, and people would go there when they were ill. They had a diet that was high in cereals and called for a lot of exercise. She always would walk three to 10 miles a day after that. She would always eat cereal and she was very health-conscious, not that she wouldn't go up to Chicago on occasion for a greasy hamburger. Anyway, the mystery that we all knew had happened but nobody was supposed to tell — she's been dead long enough now that I think it's OK to say that she had an illness. I think she just took the attitude that we're not sure what's wrong but we're going to get it fixed."
And Jessie Sumner lived 48 more years, dying at the age of 96.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.