This day in Jewish history / Congress gets its first Jewish lady
Florence Prag Kahn replaced her deceased husband and went on to make a mark of her own over the next decade.
February 17, 1925, is the day that Florence Prag Kahn, the first Jewish woman in the U.S. House of Representatives, was elected. The widow of 11-term congressman Julius Kahn, she was chosen in a special election to serve out her husband’s term after he died, in December 1924.
Florence Prag Kahn was only the fifth woman to serve in the House (the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed American women the right to vote, had been passed only in 1920). Most of them, like her, were elected to serve out the terms cut short by their husbands’ deaths, but Florence Kahn ran successfully for reelection the following year, and ended up serving in Congress until 1937.
Florence Prag was born on November 9, 1866, in Salt Lake City, Utah, where her father, the Polish-born Conrad Prag, a merchant and friend of Brigham Young, had come from San Francisco to open a business. Her mother, Mary Goldsmith Prag, also Polish-born, had arrived in California in 1852, having crossed the Central American isthmus by mule and canoe before sailing by steamer to San Francisco. After Conrad’s Salt Lake City business failed, the family returned to San Francisco in 1859, where they were prominent in the city’s Jewish community. Mary Prag would later serve for many years on San Francisco’s board of education.
Florence graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1887, one of only seven women in her class, and for the next decade taught in a high school. In 1899, she married Julius Kahn – a former actor who had previously served in the California state assembly – just days before he entered the U.S. Congress. A conservative Republican, known for his strong belief in military preparedness, Julius eventually became chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee, and was a key sponsor of the bills that established the draft after the U.S. entered World War I, in 1917.
Serving as her husband’s secretary during his 25 years in Congress, during part of which she was also a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, Florence became very knowledgeable about both policy and politics. When Julius died, on December 18, 1924, shortly after being re-elected for the 10th time, it was almost natural for Florence to decide to take his place, and in the special election, she defeated three other contenders for the seat.
Florence Prag Kahn’s tenure in the House coincided with major economic development in the San Francisco Bay area, and her political savvy – she served on both the Military Affairs and Appropriations committees of the House – helped her secure federal funding for a number of major projects, including the construction of the Bay Bridge linking San Francisco and Oakland, and several military bases, including the Alamada Naval Air station.
She was no less conservative on security issues than her husband, and like him, a great believer in military preparedness. She once noted, “Preparedness has never caused a war, nor has unpreparedness ever prevented one.” Her support of the Federal Bureau of Investigation led the bureau’s director J. Edgar Hoover to call her the “Mother of the FBI.”
More lieberal on social issues, however, she helped bring about the repeal of Prohibition and opposed movie censorship. And though she always voted along strict Republican lines, she was known for her independent mind and her substantial wit, leading the American Mercury magazine to comment at one point that, “You always know how Florence Kahn is going to vote, but only God has the slightest inkling of what she’s going to say.”
In 1934, Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth said of her: “Mrs. Kahn, shrewd, resourceful, and witty, is an all-around first-rate legislator, the equal of any man in Congress and the superior of most.”
After being re-elected five times through 1934, Kahn was defeated in 1936, in large part a victim of the long coattails that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s re-election that year extended to Democratic candidates nationwide.
In the years following her retirement from Congress, she remained active in public life, including in the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, and her San Francisco synagogue, Reform Congregation Emanu-El, as well as in the American Association of University Women.
Florence Prag Kahn died on November 16, 1948, in San Francisco.