Florence Kahn: First Jewish Woman Elected to Congress

On 17 February 1925, Florence Prag Kahn achieved a notable first when she was elected the first Jewish woman to serve in Congress, only the fifth woman overall. She was elected to represent California’s Fourth Congressional District in a special election to replace her husband, Congressman Julius Kahn, who had a distinguished 25-year career in Congress cut short by his death in San Francisco on 18 December 1924.

Photo: Florence Prag Kahn
Photo: Florence Prag Kahn. Credit: Harris & Ewing; U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The two newspaper articles below report on Florence Kahn’s election. The first article concludes that she conducted her campaign “on the premises that she would complete some of the work her husband had begun.” Many no doubt believed that.

However, as her quotes in the second article reveal, Florence Kahn was no sentimental, temporary replacement. She fiercely believed in her own independence and qualifications, and the electorate agreed with her: she finished her husband’s term in the 69th Congress, then was reelected from the 70th through the 74th Congresses, serving from 7 December 1925 until 3 January 1937 – a distinguished 11-year congressional career of her own, including becoming the first woman to serve on the House Military Affairs Committee.

An article about Florence Kahn, Oregonian newspaper article 18 February 1925
Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 18 February 1925, page 1

Here is a transcription of this article:

Mrs. Kahn Elected to Congress Seat

California Woman to Succeed Late Husband

Representative-elect Says She Has No Fad or Hobby and Will Meet Patriotic Duty

SAN FRANCISCO, Cal., Feb. 17. (AP) – Mrs. Florence Prag Kahn today was elected to Congress to represent California in the seat left vacant by the death of her husband, the late Julius Kahn, unofficial figures indicated.

For the 252 precincts in the Fourth Congressional District the figures, complete but unofficial, are: Mrs. Kahn 12, 276; Raymond A. Burr 10,056; H. W. Hutton 2,138; Henry Claude Huck 847.

California’s newest congresswoman is the second that has represented the golden state, the first being Mrs. Mae Nolan, who was chosen to succeed her husband, who died before his term had been completed.

Mrs. Kahn has no fads or hobbies, she told the Associated Press tonight after she had received word of her election.

“I have always been too busy to have a fad or a hobby,” she said. “Nor do I believe in all this ‘motherhood, feminist blah’ when a woman enters politics. I shall try to do each day the little duties that arise just as any woman would in her home or a man in his home or office, or as either a man or woman should when elected to public office. I shall try to do my work as congresswoman with ordinary common sense. In fact, I shall hope to maintain the standard for patriotic duty set for me by my husband, the late Julius Kahn, and the memory of him is the only strain of sadness for me in all of this. His loss I feel more keenly than ever tonight, and yet I am happy that I have been elected and am to be given an opportunity to work in Congress for my state as he worked. That means working long hours and hard.”

Mrs. Kahn ran as an independent, as did all the candidates at the special election. Normally she will concede allegiance to the Republican Party. Her husband, Congressman Kahn, however, was nominated at the last election by both Republicans and Democrats. He was a member of every Congress since the 56th except the 58th.

After the death of Congressman Kahn December 18 last, Mrs. Kahn was urged to announce her candidacy by a committee headed by Mayor Rolph. Her supporters conducted her campaign on the premises that she would complete some of the work her husband had begun and was eminently qualified for the position by the intimate acquaintance with public questions she had gained in her associations with Congressman Kahn in his 24 years of public life.

An article about Florence Kahn, Springfield Republican newspaper article 12 March 1925
Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 12 March 1925, page 10

Here is a transcription of this article:

Florence Kahn Goes to Congress

Elected on Her Own Merit to Fill Vacancy Caused by Husband’s Death

“A sense of humor, a heart made tender by years of experience and struggle and 25 years in the gallery of Congress, should be a pretty fair equipment for a congresswoman.”

Thus does Florence Prag Kahn, recently chosen by the voters of the 4th Congressional District in San Francisco to take the seat of her late husband, Julius Kahn, summarize her qualifications.

After an active but dignified campaign, Mrs. Kahn emerged victor in a four-cornered contest. The day after the special election she summoned from Washington the members of Congressman Kahn’s office in a downtown office building to carry on the work of her constituency.

Will Work at Home

“Unless there is a special session of Congress called by the President, I shall not go to Washington until the December session opens,” was her businesslike announcement. “I shall have the use of Mr. Kahn’s back files and through my work with him during the past years, I am familiar with the legislation we now have before us. There is much business to attend to, and I am ready to do my part.”

While undoubtedly many voted for Mrs. Kahn out of esteem for her late husband – a man who for independence of character and outspoken judgments was an outstanding figure in Congress – she made no such appeal, but stood firmly on the ground of her own abilities.

“I was not a supplicant for the votes of the district on the sentimental plea that I should be sent back to finish my husband’s term,” she says. “I sought the office on the platform of efficiency and preparedness.”

She Knows the Ropes

“I know the ropes. I had been the partner of my husband in the true sense of the word. And I believe that the time has come when a woman who is properly equipped can take her place in political life in Washington and represent not only women, but men and women, and the interests common to all the people.

“I am going to Washington to represent my district. I want to ‘carry on’ in the spirit and efficiency of Julius Kahn, my husband, who represented the district for 25 years.

“I have no false notions of my own importance. I have no hallucinations as to how much a new member can do to accomplish miracles of legislation in Washington the first few months. The wheels are very large and they grind very slowly. Nothing is funnier than to see a new congressman take himself too seriously. While his work and position are serious enough, he must not think he is the center of congressional activities.

May Seek Another Term

“A representative should be trusted to represent his or her constituents. Three thousand miles is a long way and situations become distorted in transit some times. This is why I do not want my friends at home to judge me harshly until they know exactly what I am doing.”

Her friends expect Mrs. Kahn to “make a record” strictly on her own, and that in two years she will ask the electorate to return her again to Congress.

Mrs. Kahn is a graduate of the University of California, being one of four women who finished their course at the Berkeley institution in 1887. She taught in the high schools of San Francisco before she met and married the brilliant actor, Julius Kahn. Her mother, Mrs. Mary Prag, is one of the most active members of the San Francisco board of education.

Mrs. Kahn has two sons, Julius and Conrad, the latter a student at the state university.

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