First woman to represent Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District inspires new generations

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‘Unusual for her time’: Historian remarks on the success of Louise G. Reece

TENNESSEE (WJHL) – This year marked the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote in the United States. Now, for only the second time in history, Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District may yet again be represented by a woman.

Candidates Blair Walsingham and Diana Harshbarger are vying to represent Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District in Washington as the second woman to fill that seat. Their way paved by a woman elected decades ago – Louise Goff Reece.

Louise Reece
Courtesy: Tennessee State Library & Archives

News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais spoke with Knoxville-based historian Ray Hill about her life and legacy.

Her husband, Carroll Reece, was the longest-serving Congressman in Tennessee.

“She really was her husband’s, not only his wife, but she was a political partner in a lot of ways, she was probably as well known in the 1st Congressional District as he was,” Ray told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais. “She certainly would’ve been one of the most well-known people in the 1st Congressional District, even if she wasn’t as well-know as Carroll was. One of the lessons that anyone running for office could take from Louise Reece was that she was considerate of people, she was always concerned about the region. Carroll Reece and Louise did a great deal to alleviate as much as they could. Suffering from the Great Depression, they worked with other Tennessee congressmen, notably Senator McKellar, to bring projects that brought jobs and improvements to the 1st Congressional District. They did a lot to try and alleviate the unemployment in the region, that’s one reason they had such a big following in the district, they just did a lot for people. They both concentrated on the constituent service, which is they responded to their mail, they returned their telephone calls, they were around the district quite a lot.”

Louise Reece succeeded her husband Representative Carroll Reece in a special election in 1961 after his death. She beat out two other candidates, likely due to her devotion to the district she represented, according to Hill.

“She left a legacy of devotion to the 1st District, the people of the 1st District, and you know, with her wealth, she did a lot of philanthropy that still remains there today, like the Archives of Appalachia and the Reece Museum, their papers are still there,” he said. “They were just devoted – she and Carroll – were devoted to the people of the 1st Congressional District. You can’t really find a bigger or finer legacy than somebody who genuinely is devoted to their people.”

Daughter of politics

Daughter and granddaughter of two U.S. senators out of West Virginia, Reece was raised in a politically-savvy, as well as wealthy family.

“Despite her background, she was very attuned to working people, and just the people in an Appalachian type of district,” Hill said.

Reece was unusually well-educated for a woman of her youth, Hill explained. But she also had a big heart for people.

“Louise was unusual for her time because she was an extremely well-educated woman at a time when many women didn’t go on to finish their educations,” he said. “She was also independent. She gave up all of her privilege to go to France during the First World War, where she drove ambulances to ferry the wounded troops back and forth.”

Reece was also for helping the people of her district.

“She was for federal aid to schools, but she didn’t want to take federal money for teacher pay raises because she was afraid of the precedent that it might set that the federal government could come back and tell the locals what to teach,” Hill explained. “So, she really was part of the fabric of the political and business life of the 1st  District, quite nearly for 50 years.” 

Feminist in her own way

Congressman Reece was famously dependent on his wife to drive him around throughout his political career, as he never got a driver’s license.

“Her ability to drive came in very handy because Congressman Carroll Reece, never learned to drive, so she chauffeured her husband throughout the entirety of the 1st Congressional District. Her daughter, Louise, was their only child and she had a plane, it was a gift from Louise and Carroll Reece for her graduation, and she flew her father around the congressional district. Congressman Reece was entirely dependent on the women folk in his family to drive him about and fly him about, but because she was so involved, she knew the district extremely well,” Hill said.

Reece paved the way for women in Tennessee and the nation, when she beat out two other candidates to take a Republican seat in Congress in 1961 – the first woman representing the 1st Congressional District.

“As far as being a feminist, I mean, here’s a woman who had a very different experience to most women of her time – she was very well educated – and how many parents at that time would’ve bought their daughter a plane, and allowed their daughter to fly hither and yon, I mean that’s very unusual. Very unusual for a woman to be president of a bank, so and she was the first woman to be elected to Congress from the 1st District. You could say she certainly broke a lot of barriers, if she wasn’t a feminist in today’s context, you could certainly make a very strong case for the fact that she did not think women should be confined to traditional roles, as evidenced by her own life,” Hill expanded.

First woman elected as 1st District Representative

False claims have been made saying that if either Diana Harshbarger or Blair Walsingham wins their election on November 4, they will be the first woman elected to represent Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District.

“When a senator dies, a United States senator dies in office or resigns from office, the governor makes an appointment up until the next election, whether it’s a special election or a regular election. The congressional seats are always filled by the people,” Hill explained. “Always, and she was duly elected by the people of the 1st District, so whether they like it or not – Louise Goff Reece is the first woman elected to Congress from the 1st Congressional District. That’s absolutely, indisputably true.”

Reece Museum, East Tennessee State University

Some might argue that Reece won her seat purely because of her husband’s legacy, and that the 2020 candidates differ from her in that way.

“Now, you could say that these women running in the 1st District now would be the first woman elected who did not follow her husband into Congress – that would be accurate – but to say that the election doesn’t count, well, how do you dismiss an election that was duly held and participated in by the people of the district?” Hill said.

News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais reached out to both campaigns to find out what their views are on Reece.

Democratic candidate Blair Walsingham said in a statement:

“Louise Goff Reece was a woman who helped forge a path ahead for women, and she acknowledged something that it is important to remember today. Her husband served 18 terms in Congress, and Louise commented that her husband “only had to show at just one county rally to clinch another term.” When Louise ran for his seat in the special election, she said “I thought of a lot of back roads my husband had forgotten.” The 1st District is still a forgotten place, one where few take an interest because dynasties with little connection to the real struggles of the people here face. Louise did her part in ensuring that schools were built, but as we look to the future, we must ask whether such longstanding Representatives have served our communities well. A leader who feels too secure in reelection and whose life is too different from those of the constituents can all too easily forget those back roads Louise mentioned. As Representative of the 1st District, I will not forget. These are the people to whom I have delivered meals, people whose stories have touched my heart, and people with whom I share common obstacles and hardships. It would be an honor to be the second woman elected here in the 1st, and it humbles me to pick up this mantle that was all too briefly held by a woman so long ago.

Democratic candidate Blair Walsingham
Diana Harshbarger and Blair Walsingham

Republican candidate Diana Harshbarger said in a statement:

“Louise Goff Reece was a trailblazer. Even before she succeeded her husband in Congress, she was revered and well known throughout East Tennessee. I think we would both agree that we are successful as women, not because we are women. I hope that when elected in November, I can provide the same degree of service and be a representative that East Tennessee is proud of”

Republican candidate Diana Harshbarger

Hill explained that though the much-loved Reece could’ve continued on in Congress after her husband’s death, she only served the one term and decided not to run for re-election due to a severe arthritic condition.

She was succeeded by James “Jimmy” Quillen.

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