A Congresswoman for the Ages: Edith Nourse Rogers and the Wagner-Rogers Bill

July 25, 2014
Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers was a great fan of air travel in 1929, flying in open-cockpit planes to and from Washington - Image (c)
Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers was a great fan of air travel in 1929, flying in open-cockpit planes to and from Washington – Image (c) https://historycms.house.gov

Compiled by The Bedford Citizen

Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers - Image (c)
Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers – Image (c) https://historycms.house.gov

While she is remembered in Bedford because of the Veterans Administration Hospital that bears her name, few Bedford residents may know much about Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers, or the Wagner-Rogers bill.

Congresswoman Rogers’s official biography credits her as author of legislation “that had far-reaching effects on American servicemen and women, including the creation of the Women’s Army Corp and the GI Bill of Rights.” However she has another claim to fame that is less well known, but interesting in light of current events: In 1939 Congresswoman Rogers and Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) co-sponsored legislation to “increase the quota for Jewish immigrants in an effort to rescue Jewish refugee children fleeing Nazi persecution,” according to her official US Congress biography. The Wagner-Rogers bill would have allowed up to 20,000 Jewish refugee children under the age of 14 to enter the United States.

The Bedford Citizen was alerted to Congresswoman Rogers’ 1939 legislation by our reader Hanna Papanek of Lexington. Papanek lived in an Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE) children’s home near Paris from the outbreak of WWII in September 1939 until late 1940 when she her family were able to come to the United States.  [One of many organizations that hid Jewish children during the German occupation and helped them escape persecution, OSE was created in 1913 to improve the health of the Jewish population in Tsarist Russia. OSE moved to Berlin after the Russian Revolution, and moved again to Paris in the 1930’s to provide health and education to Jewish children. OSE continues its work today in France, and with partners around the world.]

Who was Edith Nourse Rogers?

Born in 1881, Republican Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers represented Bedford as part of Massachusetts’ Fifth Congressional District for 35 years, from her election following the death of her husband Congressman John Jacob Rogers in June 1925, until her death in September 1960, in the midst of her 19th congressional campaign. She was the longest-serving woman in the US Congress until Barbara Mikulski’s (D-MD) combined service in the US House and Senate eclipsed Rogers’s record.

A staunch proponent of temperance and the Eighteenth Amendment, Rogers piled up an astonishing 13,086 votes to her opponent’s 1,939 in her 1925 primary election. After winning that initial contest in 1925, Rogers observed “I hope that everyone will forget that I am a woman as soon as possible.” She was re-elected multiple times, serving a total of 18 consecutive terms.

What was the outcome of the Wagner-Rogers bill?

According to a Mt. Holyoke College website that examines foreign policy during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, the Wagner-Rogers Bill was “let go in February 1939” shortly before the fateful journey of the SS St. Louis. The St. Louis, a German ocean liner, is most notable for a single voyage in which her captain tried to find homes for 937 German Jewish refugees after they were denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada. The passengers were finally accepted in various European countries where, historians estimate, approximately a quarter of them died in concentration camps.

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