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Just who was Leonor K. Sullivan?

Leonor K. Sullivan, official portrait

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Leonor K. Sullivan – Missouri’s first woman elected to Congress  – would no doubt be pleased by this week’s groundbreaking of the downtown project to elevate the riverfront street that now bears her name.

That street may be the only major local honor awarded Sullivan since she left office -- even though she used her political clout to help create and build the Gateway Arch that looms above the street and her beloved Mississippi River.

Sullivan served 24 years in the U.S. House, from 1953-77, becoming one of Missouri’s longest serving members of Congress. (Her successor, fellow Democrat Richard A. Gephardt, served 28 years.)

Sullivan's legacy, however, goes far beyond her length of tenure.

On paper, she obtained her congressional seat the old-fashioned way: outliving her husband, John Sullivan, who held the 3rd District seat off-and-on for a decade.

But in truth, Leonor Sullivan’s ascendency was more complicated. Although she had been her husband’s campaign manager and congressional aide for most of his tenure, local Democratic leaders objected to her taking over the congressional seat when her husband unexpectedly died in office in early 1951.

Instead, Democrats chose a man, Harry Schendel, to be their nominee in the special election to choose Sullivan’s replacement. But he lost to Republican Claude I. Bakewell.

At age 49, Leonor Sullivan got a staff job with another congressman as she regrouped and raised money for her own 1952 bid to win back the seat. She faced six Democratic rivals – and beat them all.

After that, Leonor K. Sullivan won re-election 11 times, at times winning almost 70 percent of the vote.

Once in Congress, Sullivan had far more impact than her husband ever did.

Focused on consumer issues, food stamps

Consumer protection was arguably Sullivan’s chief passion. According to the U.S. House’s official biography, Sullivan quipped that when she started out, “Those of us interested in consumer legislation could have caucused in an elevator.”

Sullivan is credited as one of the co-authors of the federal food stamp program in its current form. She did, however, take issue with the program's scope and administration when the revamped version was put in place in the early 1960s.  Among other things, she contended that too many critics were in charge of running the program, which she feared would harm its effectiveness.

Sullivan also was the House floor manager charged with garnering the votes for the ground-breaking 1968 Consumer Credit Protection Agency, which officially established “truth in lending’’ requirements for financial institutions. She wanted to end the practice of giving consumers misleading information and to require that financial institutions disclose hidden lending costs and fees.

During the floor debate, she exhorted her colleagues, “Will we give the consumer the whole truth in lending or just part of the truth?”

In some respects, Sullivan was the Elizabeth Warren of her day. The chief sponsor of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, she fought the banking industry to obtain fairer treatment of women in obtaining credit.

During her first year in the U.S. House, Sullivan “urged her colleagues to amend the income tax law to allow widows and working mothers to make deductions for child care,” according to her official biography.

Sullivan also took on the cosmetics industry, holding hearings to highlight her contention that some dyes – including those used in lipstick – contained cancer-causing substances that threatened women’s lives. 

Her targets also included poorly made panty hose, which prompted her to complain in writing to the National Science Foundation: "Can science devise pantyhose or any hose which not only fits but lasts long enough to survive the hazards of normal use?"

Only woman in Congress to oppose ERA

During her last years in Congress in the 1970s, Sullivan ran afoul of the women’s movement when she became the only woman in Congress to vote against the Equal Rights Amendment.

Her objections ranged from the fear the ERA would threaten traditional marriage to concerns that the ERA would gut hard-won state and federal legislation ending decades of discrimination against women in the workplace and as they sought credit.

Sullivan’s stance on the ERA arguably cost her any loyalty from women’s rights groups, which continue to honor later ground-breaking local figures, notably former state Rep. Sue Shear or former Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods.

Publicly, anyway, Sullivan didn’t seem to care.  During her tenure, she expressed conflicting views toward women in government, attitudes that could rankle colleagues.

At one point, she was quoted as saying, “A  woman with a woman’s viewpoint is of more value when she forgets she’s a woman and begins to act like a man.”

Leonor K Sullivan Boulevard is a lasting tribute to Missouri's first female member of Congress.
Credit Jo Mannies | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Leonor K Sullivan Boulevard is a lasting tribute to Missouri's first female member of Congress.

But when she announced her retirement in 1976, Sullivan told Congressional Quarterly that women deserved to be in Congress “as long as they think like women and don’t try to think like men. Because we do think differently.”

By then in her 70s, Sullivanalso complained to the Los Angeles Timesthat she was turned off by the Watergate-era environment. “I'm disturbed at what's happening to the whole government,” she said. “The corruption that always goes on . . . the lack of morals . . . too many people thinking, 'So what?' “

After she left office, Sullivan returned to a home on a hilltop in south St. Louis that overlooked the Mississippi River and may have given her a view of the Arch.

She kept a low profile during her retirement, but she was still around when Wharf Street was renamed for her in 1983. Sullivan died five years later, at the age of 86.

Survivors include the street that bears her name.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.