If we are lucky, we get the chance to hear our grandparents’ stories. Those who don’t have that opportunity may search genealogical records, hoping for traces of family tales and the exploits of prior generations. As an adult, I moved to Indiana for two years in part to understand the life of my grandmother. Studying family history gave me a glimpse into U.S. History, the construction of memory within a family, and the shaping of my own narrative.
In her book Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics 1880-1944, historian and journalist Kristie Miller retraces the story of her own pioneering grandmother. While the author has a unique personal connection to her subject, Ruth’s story transcends the personal and offers us all a look at a pivotal period of history that was shaped by the politics of Theodore Roosevelt.
Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Marcus Alonzo Hanna, 1903. From the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
Ruth Simms loved to tell a good story. With her friend, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Ruth McCormick connected with people, became the center of powerful political circles, and delighted in the work she accomplished. McCormick was also known for her empathy. She cared about people and wanted to help them, a desire that may have shaped her lifelong interest in politics.
As the daughter of political power broker, Mark Hanna, McCormick grew up observing political approaches that worked. Hanna believed in the importance of bringing information directly to people and in engaging them through good conversation. Throughout her life, McCormick looked to her father as an example. She also watched him work with Theodore Roosevelt on issues such as the Panama Canal.
Ruth’s marriage to Medill McCormick, Chicago Tribune scion, deepened her political acumen. She embraced his campaigns and applied her skills and ability to engage with people in service of his career. However, she did not compromise her own ambitions. Ruth McCormick was part of the suffrage debate and believed deeply that women should have the right to vote, as well as the ability to pursue careers of their own choosing. However, her approach differed from more militant women like Alice Paul. Ruth thought that the best approach was to work closely with men as equals. In 1925, Medill McCormick committed suicide. Responding in a way that Theodore Roosevelt would have understood, Ruth kept very busy with the work she loved following her husband’s death.
In 1928, Ruth successfully ran as a representative to Congress from the politically cutthroat state of Illinois. She opened her campaign with this statement, “In all candor and honesty I must say that nobody asked me to run. I have had no demand upon me from constituents, friends, enemies, neighbors and family, and, as far as I know, nobody wants me to run. But I hope at the end of the campaign that I am going to find a sufficient number of people who think I ought to run” (Miller 185). After serving in Congress, Ruth became the first woman nominated by a major party for the Senate. Her campaign was in part derailed by a lengthy inquiry into her campaign finances. She was distracted from the national economic issues that should have been her focus.
In Congress, Ruth was introduced to Albert Simms, a fellow Representative from the state of New Mexico. Through her marriage to Simms she got to know the western half of the United States and put her firsthand knowledge of cattle to work as a rancher. While living in New Mexico, she also enthusiastically embraced the arts scene and supported painters and actors as they struggled to realize their ambitions. Near the end of her life, Ruth ran the presidential campaign of Thomas Dewey. She loved this role and was at her happiest when she was busy. In 1944, she died in the midst of World War II, a conflict that she vehemently did not want the country to enter. Her life was shaped by a passion and enthusiasm for the work she accomplished.
Source: Ruth Hanna McCormick: A Life in Politics 1880-1944. By Kristie Miller. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque, 1992.