If Republican Diane Gooch unseats Frank Pallone this fall, she will become the first Congresswoman from New Jersey since Marge Roukema retired in 2002. One other woman, Henrietta Dwyer, is favored to capture a major party nomination for Congress this year, in a district where the Democratic incumbent, Albio Sires, is expected to win easily.
The first woman to run for Congress in New Jersey was Gertrude Reilly, a Socialist who won 4% of the vote in her 1914 challenge to Democratic Congressman Joseph Eagan in a Hudson County district. Reilly ran against Eagan again in 1918 and won 9%. Dr. Jennie Sharp, a member of the Camden Board of Education, was the second won to run; she won 4% as the Progressive Party candidate in the first district.
Mary Theresa Norton, a Hudson County Freeholder, became the first New Jersey woman to serve in Congress. With the support of Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, she defeated Republican Douglas Story with 62% of the vote in 1924. Norton remained in Congress for 26 years, becoming the first woman to chair a full House committee.
Susan McNair of Paterson became the second woman to win a major party nomination for Congress when she challenged two-term Republican George Segar in 1926. She won 27% of the vote. Besides Norton, Democrats and Republicans did not nominate a woman for Congress again until 1940, when Mary Duffy won 42% against a freshman Republican, Albert Vreeland, in an Essex County district.
Florence Dwyer, a Republican Assemblywoman from Elizabeth, became the first Republican woman to run for Congress — and the first woman to unseat an incumbent — when she ousted Democrat Harrison Williams with 51% of the vote in 1956. (Williams won a U.S. Senate seat two years later.) Dwyer’s 1962 re-election campaign against Democrat Lillian Golf marked the first time two women faced off in the same House race; Golf won 40%.
Two other women ousted incumbents: Democrat Helen Stevenson Meyner, the wife of former Governor Robert Meyner, in 1974; and Roukema, a Republican who served as the former Ridgewood Board of Education President, in 1980. Both had run once before without success — Meyner won 43% against then-State Senator Joseph Maraziti in an open seat race in 1972, and Roukema won 47% in 1978 before defeating Democrat Andrew Maguire in 1980. Two Monmouth County women ran strong races against incumbent Congressmen: Democrat Katherine White, who won 47% of the vote against James Auchincloss in 1960; and Marie Muhler, a GOP Assemblywoman, who won 49% against James Howard in 1980. No other women have won more than 45% against a sitting Congressman in New Jersey.
Norton was the only woman to be nominated for an open House seat until 1972, when Democrats ran Jerry English, a former interim State Senator (and future state Environmental Protection Commission), and Meyner. English lost to GOP State Senator Matthew Rinaldo, who won the seat Dwyer was vacating after sixteen years.
In all, New Jersey has sent five women to Congress: Norton, Dwyer, Meyner and Millicent Fenwick , who won an open seat in 1974, and Roukema in 1980. Since Roukema’s retirement in 2002, New Jersey becomes the nation’s most populous state without a woman in its congressional delegation.