Helen Douglas Mankin (1894-1956)
Born in 1894 to well-educated parents, Helen Douglas prepared for her eventual career from girlhood. Both her mother and her father earned law degrees from the prestigious University of Michigan – but when they moved to Atlanta, only Hamilton Douglas could practice law: Georgia barred female attorneys. Corrine Douglas instead became an innovative educator, while Hamilton also worked in that field as a founder of the Atlanta Law School.
Helen graduated from Atlanta's Washington Seminary in 1913 and earned an A.B. at Rockford College in Illinois in 1917. Afterward, she traveled to France to serve as a World War I ambulance driver for an American hospital supported by suffragists. She earned her LLB from Atlanta Law School in 1920 -- the same year that the federal government's 19th Amendment enfranchised all American women. As a result, both she and her mother were admitted to the Georgia bar in 1921. By 1924, she was able to establish her own law practice, while also supporting herself by lecturing at Atlanta Law School.
She worked in a successful mayoral election in 1927, but also married Guy Mark Mankin that year. His engineering career took them to three Latin American countries, as well as New York and Chicago, before they settled in Atlanta in 1933. Helen Mankin immediately returned to law and politics, especially lobbying for the era's unsuccessful ratification of a federal constitutional amendment to end child labor.
Just three years after returning to Atlanta, she won a seat in the legislature. A Democrat, Mankin's tenure from 1936 to 1946 made her Georgia's longest serving female representative at that time. A biography describes her as "the legislature’s first 'strong' woman member." Often opposing the governor and other powerful interests, she was a champion for children, education, and organized labor, as well as electoral and prison reform. Far ahead of her time, she also sponsored legislation to repeal poll taxes and enfranchise eighteen year olds.
When Atlanta's congressman resigned, Mankin won a special election on February 12, 1946. African Americans recently had won the right to vote in what was previously a "white primary," and because of that, their registration doubled. She was the only one of seventeen candidates, who campaigned for the African American vote, and this clinched her nomination and won her the seat.
Although criticized by many, Mankin "refused to disavow her black supporters." The Georgia Encyclopedia said "she also drew support from labor and white progressives, becoming the focus of a black-white voting alliance that Georgia's dominant groups had feared since the Populist uprising of the 1890s." She ardently supported President Harry Truman's "Square Deal," sponsored a federal amendment to repeal poll taxes, and even voted against funding the House Un-American Activities Committee. Her constituents supported her, and she defeated her opponent, James C. Davis, by more than 11,000 votes in the July primary. Despite winning, she lost: Georgia’s "county unit" system gave greater weight to rural counties than to urban ones, and Davis carried eight counties while she won six. The fact that his counties had fewer voters did not matter.
Mankin challenged this outcome, and briefly won – but Governor Eugene Talmadge used his influence to remove her name from the ballet once again. She attempted to spearhead a write-in campaign, but again faced staunch opposition from white supremacists. Despite intimidation and several cases of fraud, she still carried 38% of the vote – almost unheard of for a write-in candidate. The same powerful conservative system again defeated her in 1948, when Mankin ran for Congress for the last time.
Always a brave fighter, she initiated a 1950 federal suit, South v. Peters, against the county-unit law that kept her out of office. The US Supreme Court ruled against her, but would reverse itself in 1962. Mankin, however, did not live to see that: she died in College Park, Georgia, in a 1956 automobile accident. At the time of her death, she was campaigning for Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson and raising funds for the new state of Israel.
Helen Douglas Mankin was a bold, strong woman, a competent lawyer, and a fighter who refused to give up in the face of discrimination, unfairness, and hatred.
Image credit: US Congress.