In 1918, she traveled to Chicago and met Illinois state legislator Ralph Church. The couple married that December and settled in Evanston, Illinois, where they raised three children: Ralph, William, and Marjory. Marguerite Church worked in a succession of organizations devoted to family and children’s welfare. In 1934, Ralph Church was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to the first of seven terms in a seat representing the densely populated suburbs just north of Chicago. Marguerite embarked with him on investigative trips, making her own speaking tour on behalf of Republican presidential campaigns in 1940 and 1944. During and after World War II, at her husband’s request, she made several inspection tours of Europe. In Washington she served as president of the Congressional Club, a group of wives and daughters of Members of Congress, the Cabinet, and the Supreme Court. But she later recalled that while he was alive she never seriously considered a political career. “My political life was one of adaptation to his life,” Church observed. Nevertheless, her experience as a congressional spouse was critical to her later success, making her “a realist as regards the practical operation of Congress.”
Ralph Church died suddenly of heart failure during a House committee hearing in March 1950. Shortly thereafter, GOP leaders in Illinois persuaded Marguerite Church to run for her husband’s vacant seat. “If a man had been nominated and made a mistake, you would have said he is stupid,” Church said at the time. “If I make a mistake, you will say she is a woman. I shall try never to give you reason to say that.” In the general election that fall, she defeated Democrat Thomas F. Dolan with 74 percent of the vote. In her next five re–election bids, she was never seriously challenged, winning between 66 and 72 percent of the vote. “The [local GOP] organization, of course, never considered anybody else after I got in,” Church recalled. “They just went along.” Much of her success was due to her attention to district needs. She returned to Illinois frequently, opened her home to voters, and personally dictated replies to an average of 600 letters per week. Her cardinal rule was if anyone came asking for help, “never let yourself ask, ‘Is he a Republican or a Democrat?’…We never made any political distinction whatsoever, and I think that was one reason that in the long run people began to trust me.” Church’s independence also earned her the respect of colleagues.
When Church took her seat in the 82nd Congress (1951–1953), she was assigned to the Committee on Expenditures in Executive Departments (later Government Operations), where she chaired a special subcommittee investigating President Dwight Eisenhower’s reorganization of the Council of Economic Advisers. Church was instrumental in helping to pass recommendations offered by the Second Hoover Commission on efficiency in government. In 1957, Church supported the Civil Rights Bill. She also was one of the first Members to bring African–American guests into the House dining room, when she treated six young newsboys to lunch. Capitol staff told her she would never get through the door. “Well,” she replied, the boys have worked hard selling newspapers “and I certainly do not intend to tell them they can’t luncheon in the dining room of their own Capitol.” The group ate lunch in the dining room. Though not “militant about a woman’s rights,” Church supported women’s rights legislation, including the Equal Pay Bill. She encouraged women entering politics to think of themselves as public servants rather than advocates of feminism. She believed in “equal protection under the law for both men and women, period.”
Church left Government Operations in the 84th Congress (1955–1957) to focus exclusively on her Foreign Affairs Committee assignment (which she had received two years earlier). After winning re–election in 1952, she had been offered a spot on the prestigious Appropriations Committee, where her husband once sat and, in fact, where only one woman had previously served. The committee chairman made the offer, but Church declined. “I’m awfully sorry,” she replied. “I’ve spent all summer trying to persuade people that it would be a loss to the country if they didn’t put me on the Foreign Affairs Committee. That has become my major interest.” She later claimed that she did not want to accept an assignment that, she believed, was made partly as a tribute to her husband. She served on Foreign Affairs until she retired from Congress.
Church’s chief interests and influence flowed from her work on the Foreign Affairs Committee, where she was assigned to the Subcommittee on Foreign Economic Policy. She was a skeptic of large foreign–aid bills appropriated for many of America’s Cold War allies in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. “The idea that you can win friends and influence people merely by pouring out millions—and it’s amounted by this time to billions—never caught my attention or my faith,” she recalled. As a member of the Subcommittee on the Far East and the Pacific, she traveled widely to witness firsthand the implementation of American programs. “Some officials protested that this was no place for a lady,” Church told a reporter. “I told them I was not a lady. I was a Member of Congress.” In 1959, while Ranking Republican Member on the Foreign Economic Policy Subcommittee, she logged more than 40,000 miles in 17 countries. Her experience with a group of tribal women in a remote sub–Saharan African village shaped her view of how foreign aid should be targeted. “These women, I found, didn’t want guns; they didn’t want atomic plants; they didn’t want navies,” Church said. “They wanted someone who could show them the next step up from where they were to where they’d like to be.”
During the first year of the John F. Kennedy administration, that memory factored into her championing of the Peace Corps, which sought to provide educational and technological support to developing countries through the work of trained college–aged American volunteers. During a September 14, 1961, debate, seven–term Representative H.R. Gross of Iowa launched a verbal diatribe against the Peace Corps program. Gross described it as a “Kiddie Korps,” reminiscent of Hitler’s youth corps in Nazi Germany, and a “utopian brainstorm” that would exacerbate the U.S. deficit. In response, Congresswoman Church entered the well of the House to speak on behalf of the program, recounting her numerous trips abroad where she had seen foreign–aid dollars misspent and misdirected in the battle for the developing world. “Here is something which is aimed right,” Church told colleagues, “which is American, which is sacrificial—and which above all can somehow carry at the human level, to the people of the world, what they need to know; what it is to be free; what it is to have a next step and be able to take it; what it is to have something to look forward to, in an increase of human dignity and confidence.” A GOP colleague recalled that Church’s floor speech was critical in persuading a number of reluctant Republicans to support the measure. “You quite literally could see people who had been uncertain or perhaps who had already decided to vote against the Peace Corps sit there, listen to her very quietly and start to rethink,” Representative Catherine May of Washington State said.” Later that afternoon, the Peace Corps legislation passed the House by a wide margin, 288 to 97.
In 1962, as an advocate of mandatory retirement for Members of Congress and facing reapportionment in her district, Church set her own example by retiring at age 70 after the close of the 87th Congress (1961–1963) in January 1963. She worked on behalf of the Republican presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Richard M. Nixon in 1968. She later served on the boards of directors for the Girl Scouts of America and the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. In 1971, President Nixon selected Church to serve on the planning board for the White House Conference on Aging.
Marguerite Church resided in Evanston, Illinois, where she died on May 26, 1990 at 97 years old.
By History, Art & Archives
Editor; Neil Gale, Ph.D.