Before there was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Kamala Harris or Kirsten Gillibrand or Amy Klobuchar or Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin? There was Edna Flannery Kelly of Brooklyn
Which is not to say this is a good thing.
Every couple of years, we seem to have another “Year of the Woman” in politics. According to a recent survey, we may need to start doing away with such things. Some people are just not into that sort of thing.
“More than one in eight Americans believe women are not as emotionally suited as men to serve in elected office, according to an analysis by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce,” a recent report in U.S. News & World Report noted. “Such attitudes still represent a significant barrier to women trying to break into what has long been a male-dominated club.”
Women, the study noted, “tend to be judged and punished more for being ‘emotional,’ … an angry or forceful man might be seen as confident, while a woman expressing those same traits would be viewed as difficult. And in the modern era, with men like former House Speaker John Boehner and former President Barack Obama tearing up publicly at times of tragedy, men are often viewed positively for being vulnerable, while crying women are often seen as weak.”
All of the intense analysis that female public figures face makes Edna Kelly’s career all the more remarkable.
She was the last of five daughters born on Long Island to Patrick and Elizabeth Flannery (nee McCarthy). Patrick came to the U.S. from Mayo in 1888. He brought with him a reverence for education and disinterest in certain American conventions about women and education.
At a time when very few women were college students -- at a time when immigrants and their children were vastly underrepresented in higher education -- Patrick Flannery of Mayo made sure his daughter Edna attended Hunter College in Manhattan, graduating in 1928.
That was the same year immigrants who provided the muscle for big-city political machines saw one of their own, Al Smith, run for president, the first Roman Catholic candidate from a major party. Smith lost, but a major step of advancement had been taken for Irish Americans and other immigrant groups.
After graduating from Hunter, Flannery married fellow Irish American Edward Kelly, a lawyer who was active in New York Democratic politics. He later became a judge but, in 1942, died in a car accident. Thus began Edna Kelly’s long, distinguished career in politics.
As The New York Times later put it, Kelly “said she became active to carry on in his tradition. Her first job was to breathe life into the moribund women's auxiliary of Brooklyn's Madison Democratic Club, a hub of party activity.”
Before long, Kelly became the first woman from Brooklyn elected to Congress. After World War II, Kelly became a go-to figure on thorny issues related to U.S.-European relations.
Most interestingly, as the Times put it, she “sponsored measures to settle displaced people after World War II and refugees from Russia and Eastern Europe.”
Whatever you think about what the U.S. should do about desperate, needy refugees from (supposedly) hostile countries, consider an interesting letter to the editor from the New York Daily News last week, about a proposal to erect a statue in Prospect Park of Shirley Chisholm, the African American firebrand who followed Kelly in Congress.
“Edna Flannery Kelly was a true pioneer,” wrote Robert McKenna of Staten Island. “She pioneered a cause to address the issue of unfair taxing when corporations were given a deduction for entertainment of clients, but mothers and fathers were denied the opportunity to deduct their expenses for childcare.
“Kelly also introduced a bill in 1951 advocating equal work for equal pay. Talk about being ahead of your time -- Edna was. … Edna Kelly was my godmother.”
So many women, these days, owe a similar debt to Edna Kelly.