In 1935, a young woman named Mary Marlin moved from Cedar Springs, Iowa, to Washington, D.C., with her new baby, Davey, and her husband, Senator Joe Marlin. In 1938, Joe was sent on a diplomatic mission to China, but his plane crashed in Siberia. He was not killed, but he did suffer amnesia, and, when he failed to return to the United States, he was presumed dead. His wife, Mary Marlin, became senator in his stead.
The Story of Mary Marlin, however, is not a true story. It was one of the most popular radio soap operas in America, broadcasting from 1935 to 1945. The author of The Story of Mary Marlin, Jane Crusinberry, grew up near Chicago. At the age of 18 she received a scholarship to study voice in Europe, but turned it down to marry a sportswriter named Jim Crusinberry. They had one daughter, and later divorced. Strapped for cash, she began writing The Story of Mary Marlin in 1935. It was broadcast in Chicago, and became so popular that it soon got a national sponsor: Kleenex.
Mary Marlin's story has new resonance this election season as we consider the fact that Jean Carnahan, wife of the deceased Mel Carnahan, will be serving as a Democratic senator for Missouri as a result of her (dead) husband winning the election for Senate by a narrow margin.
If this seems strange, even archaic, we might want to take a closer look at the history of women in the U.S. Senate. The first woman to serve as a senator, Rebecca Latimer Felton, was appointed by the Governor of Georgia in 1922 to fill the seat of a Thomas E. Watson, who died in office. She served for two days. The next woman to become a senator, Hattie Wyatt Caraway, was appointed to serve out her husband's term when he died in 1931. She was reelected in 1932 and 1938, but lost her bid for re-election in 1944.
It is likely that Jane Crusinberry modeled Mary Marlin after Hattie Caraway. They were both women from small towns and agricultural states, and they both become senators when their husbands died (or were presumed dead). Crusinberry wrote The Story of Mary Marlin, she claimed, with every intention of getting Mary into politics. But to do this, she had to get Mary's husband elected senator.
"I resolved to put Mary in the world's most exclusive club, the United States Senate. In order to do it, I had to first get Joe elected to the Senate. He won the election after a stirring campaign. Once having him firmly established there, I sent him off on an important mission to China. Unfortunately, on his way across the steppes of Russia, the plane crashed and Joe was believed to be dead. Then the governor of Iowa appointed Mary to finish Joe's term in the Senate, and there she was..."
It might be tempting to assume that after the successful senatorial careers of the real Hattie Caraway and the fictional Mary Marlin that Americans were ready to embrace women in politics. However, the shocking truth is that of the 27 women who have served (or are currently serving) in the U.S. Senate, only 10 have been elected to their first term. All others were appointed after the death or resignation of a male senator from their state -- usually their husbands.
With the victory of Democrat Maria Cantwell, there will be a record high of 13 women senators. But we cannot celebrate this simply as progress.
If one of our country's most successful women senators -- Hattie Caraway -- ended her political career in 1945, the same year that The Story of Mary Marlin went off the air, we must ask ourselves why the next 12 women senators who followed were all appointed, and why most served symbolic terms of between two and four months. We must ask ourselves why it has taken 50 years to make Missouri's Jean Carnahan seem like the exception, when in fact her path to the Senate is the more typical path for women who enter the "world's most exclusive club." We must ask ourselves why being married to a senator has given more women access to the Senate than being unmarried, ambitious and elected -- as is the case with Cantwell.
We need more women senators, but we also need more Mary Marlins. With stories like hers, we live out our political fantasies -- and find the strength to transform our political realities.