The Gentlewoman From Ohio: Frances Payne Bolton

By Ray Hill
Frances Payne Bolton was the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio.  Mrs. Bolton was also the first congresswoman to be asked to serve as a delegate to the United Nations.  The gentlelady from Ohio was also the first congresswoman invited to attend a congressional leadership meeting at the White House.  France Bolton bristled at being referred to as a “congresswoman,” disliking the distinction from her colleagues.  Mrs. Bolton insisted she was a “congressman” like all of her fellow House members.

An aristocrat, Frances Payne was the granddaughter of a Democratic U.S. senator from Ohio.  Bolton’s mother’s father, a Republican, was a member of the Ohio legislature.  The daughter of a prominent banker and industrialist, she was also the wife of a congressman and the mother of a congressman.  Throughout her life, Frances P. Bolton believed in doing for others.  It was a philosophy that was ingrained in her early and as a young woman, Frances Payne, along with friends, made and sold trinkets.  The proceeds of the sales were sent to Appalachian families in need.  France Payne Bolton once said, “You must give something to someone to be happier, especially when that gift is your own time and strength.”  The wealthy congresswoman put her money where her convictions lay, giving an endowment of $1.5 million for the nursing school at Western Reserve University in Cleveland.  Eleanor Roosevelt once described the Republican Frances Bolton as “the Congressman’s Congressman.”

The surest route to a seat in the House of Representatives during Frances P. Bolton’s times was through the death of a husband.  Bolton’s husband, Chester, had served in Congress for years and died in 1939.  The couple had three sons; Charles, Kenyon and Oliver.  Oliver Payne Bolton served in the House of Representatives from 1953-1957 and again from 1963-1965.  It was the first instance of a mother and son serving together in Congress.

Ohio Republicans thought Mrs. Bolton would be the easiest person to elect in the special election following her husband’s death and she was nominated and elected.  It is doubtful many of the same leaders who supported Frances Bolton to succeed her late husband envisioned she would remain in Congress for thirty years.  As she explained, “I grew terribly interested and stayed.”

When Senator James Couzens of Michigan died, leaving an estate of $34 million (almost $750 million in today’s currency) he was alleged to be the richest man in Congress.  Chester Bolton was supposed to be almost as rich as had been Senator Couzens.  When the Republican National Convention came to Cleveland in 1936, it was Congressman Chester Bolton’s personal check for $125,000 (around $2.7 million today) that secured the meeting site.  Chester Bolton’s father had been the longtime business partner of the fabulously wealthy Mark A. Hanna.  Bolton was only 47 when he died in office after serving for ten years.  Following her husband’s death, France Bolton inherited the title of the “richest” member of Congress.

One of the few Republicans Frances Bolton had to contend with and had a distaste for, was George H. Bender, the rotund, robust, and highly vocal leader of the GOP in Cuyahoga County where Cleveland is located.  Bender had spent much of the 1930s trying to get himself elected to the House of Representatives and finally managed to win an at-large seat in 1938.  When George Bender castigated the “royalists of the Republican Party” along with “pocketbook domination of its councils,” Mrs. Bolton had a succinct and pointed reply.  “None of us has any rights except those we earn,” she retorted.  After her nomination for the House, George H. Bender meekly declared her to be an “ideal candidate.”

Representing a district in Cleveland, the congresswoman was known for a variety of interests; Mrs. Bolton was deeply interested in education, the field of nursing, changes in the law to better the lot of minorities, and foreign affairs.  As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congresswoman Bolton traveled the world.  Following the Allied invasion of Europe in the summer of 1944, Frances Bolton visited the battlefields and hospitals to talk with soldiers from Ohio.

“I have slept on a canvas cot in a tiny tent with the guns of the battle of Brest and the undertone of the night hours,” the congresswoman recalled when she came back to Washington, D.C.  “I have ridden in command cars and in planes.  I have slogged through Normandy mud in rain.”

Frances Bolton lived a lifetime of persuading those in power to use their influence to help others.  Frances Payne Bolton had just married her husband Chester in 1907 when she appeared before the Lakeside Hospital’s Board of Directors where she spoke passionately about the living and working conditions of nurses.  Mrs. Bolton’s remarks caused the wealthy Samuel Mather to dig into his pockets to provide the money to expand the residence hall for the nurses by adding two floors.  Frances Bolton was both patient and persistent on behalf of the causes she advocated.  It was Mrs. Bolton who convinced Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, a fellow Ohioan, to set up an Army School of Nursing.  That likely saved the lives of numerous American boys, as the alternative was to rely upon untrained volunteers.

Mrs. Bolton was equally persistent in seeking solutions for those she tried to aid as a member of Congress.  One did not have to be a resident of Congressman Bolton’s district to receive her help.  Valeriu Georgescu was a Standard Oil executive and had been born in Romania. Georgescu and his wife had been banned from their home country after it was taken over by the Communist government.  Their two sons, Constantin and Peter, 19 and 15 years old respectively, had been in Romania when the Georgescus were forbidden to come home to their native country.  For two years, the Georgescus wrote letters to their sons that went unanswered.  The boys had been left with their grandparents in the small village of Lipova in 1947 when Valeriu Georgescu and his wife departed for what they thought would be a short business trip to New York City.  In 1950, Constantin and Peter’s grandfather was taken by the Romanian secret police.  Ten months later, both boys and their grandmother were arrested and forced to live in “a dirt-floored, one-room hovel in a distant town.”  Denounced as the children of a “capitalist,” Constantin and Peter Georgescu were denied further education by the Romanian government.  Instead, supervised by the police, the Georgescu boys were taught “trades.”  Eventually, Costa and Peter Georgescu and their grandmother were freed and moved to the Romanian capital of Bucharest where they were taken to the U.S. legation.  There was, as is oftentimes the case, more to the story than met the eyes.  The Communist government of Romania had offered to return the boys to their parents if Valeriu Georgescu agreed to become a spy.  Both Mr. and Mrs. Georgescu refused.

One of the prime reasons why the Georgescus were reunited was Congressman Frances P. Bolton.  Mrs. Bolton personally approached Andrei Vishinsky at a United Nations reception in New York.  As Frances Bolton ticked off the details of the Georgescu case, the Soviet ambassador barked, “Oh! Romania is not my country.”  Persistent as always, Congressman Bolton personally escorted Mr. and Mrs. Georgescu to see Bedell Smith, the under-secretary of state in the Eisenhower administration.  That brought a letter signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which was delivered to Romanian Prime Minister Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej.

When notified his sons were in Munich, Valeriu Georgescu was in Alaska on business.  The overjoyed father flew to meet Costa and Peter and took them back to New York where they hugged their beautiful mother.  “We want to share our joy with everyone,” said Mrs. Georgescu.

Congressman Frances P. Bolton believed the government of the United States should also help those in need across the globe.  Bolton joined her colleague from Ohio John M. Vorys in fending off those congressmen who had been isolationists before the war to protect an appropriation for $1.35 billion as America’s share of aid to the victims of the Second World War.  The House debated the aid package in January of 1944 as the global conflict raged on.  Jessie Sumner, a congresswoman from Illinois, thought the legislation was nothing less than an effort to “make Stalin dictator of Europe.”  California Republican Bertrand W. Gearhart insisted the aid package was unconstitutional.  Those GOP members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee fought for the aid package.  “I cannot believe the people of this country will want to do anything less for themselves and the future than to play a vital, living, vivid part in this, our first venture into international responsibility,” Bolton said.

Charles Eaton of New Jersey reminded his colleagues, “The object of this legislation – – – and do not forget it – – – is to help these people to help themselves. . .  It is impossible for us to continue to be an island of prosperity in an ocean of adversity. . .We cannot be a healthy nation surrounded by a sick world.”

1944 saw causality lists begin to swell, TIME magazine reported.  There were more than 150,000 wounded soldiers in hospitals in the United States.  The news magazine reported that in November “there has been a 300% increase in the homeward parade of the sick and hurt.”  The Army Nurse Corps, which was the result of legislation sponsored by Congressman Frances P. Bolton, had some 40,000 women in its service, 27,000 of them serving overseas.  The Army Nurse Corps needed another 1,000 women for its overseas theaters of war.  Nursing jobs had been ruled to be “essential” occupations during the war and General Norman T. Kirk, surgeon general of the United States, stated he believed 10,000 of the 209,000 women working as civilian nurses could be used for the war effort without any loss of service to those sick in America.  Following her trip to the war front battlefields, Congressman Frances Bolton reminded nurses, “If you do not respond, then we on Capitol Hill will be forced to find some way, because we will have our men cared for.”

Congressman Bolton fought for equal rights for those enlisted men who wished to function as nurses.  It was Frances Bolton who sponsored and passed the bill to allow men to serve as nurses; prior to her bill, enlisted men were not allowed to be nurses.  After Congressman Bolton’s bill, male nurses were commissioned as officers and were members of the Army or Navy Nurse Corps.

When President Harry Truman asked Congress to make a set of appropriate rules for redistricting according to the results of the 1950 census, he used Frances Bolton’s district in Cleveland as an example.  The president noted Mrs. Bolton represented 698,650 people in her district while Congressman Thomas A. Jenkins from Ohio represented a district with only 180,482 residents.

The one thing any successful incumbent finds difficult to fight is time itself.  Things are different in this country today with presidential candidates running for office who are closer to eighty than to 70 years of age, if not beyond.  Frances Bolton sought reelection to the House in 1968 and was hampered by two issues: her age and a changing district.  Charles A. Vanik, first elected to Congress in 1954, moved into Mrs. Bolton’s district as his own was becoming a Black majority district.  Frances P. Bolton was 83 years old and although she campaigned gamely, she lost the general election to her far younger challenger.

After leaving the House of Representatives, France Payne Bolton returned to her estate, Franchester.  Mrs. Bolton continued to be active, serving on several boards and continued to quietly give of herself and her fortune.  Among the boards she sat on was that of the Tuskegee Institute.  In 1976, President Gerald Ford, who had served with Frances Bolton in the House, awarded her the National Human Relations Award.  Mrs. Bolton died the following year on March 2, at the age of 91.

© 2024 Ray Hill