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Editorial: Terre Haute Native, First Indiana Woman Elected to the United States Congress

By State Sen. Jon Ford (R-Terre Haute)

This past session, I authored a Senate resolution to honor Congresswoman Virginia Jenckes. In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to share why Congresswoman Jenckes is an incredibly important woman to recognize. She is not only an important icon in Indiana history, but in Vigo County, as well.

Virginia was the first Indiana woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. She was born and raised in Terre Haute, where she met her husband, Ray Greene Jenckes. The couple operated a 1,300-acre family farm along the Wabash River. Her husband died in 1921, leaving Virginia to manage the farm and raise their daughter.

Jenckes began her career in politics in 1926 when the constant flooding of farmland in Western Indiana became a huge concern. Later, she organized the Wabash-Maumee Improvement Association, and during that time she led and organized efforts to gain navigability of the river corridor from Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1932, she decided to run for the U.S. Representative seat of Indiana’s sixth district. Having recently undergone redistricting that year, the district ran along the Wabash from Vigo County to Warren County, and was populated by farmers. Acting as her own campaign manager with her teenage daughter as her chauffeur, she gave over 200 speeches in nearly every township. Due to her efforts, she defeated a 16-year Republican incumbent to win the seat and was re-elected to the two succeeding Congresses.

Jenckes was known for being independent-minded and outspoken. She advocated for women, American veterans and workers and supported flood-control measures and the repeal of Prohibition. One of her most significant accomplishments for her constituents was obtaining an $18 million appropriation for the Wabash River basin that eventually became law.

Retiring from Congress in early 1939, she remained in Washington to work for the American Red Cross, where she was involved in the nation’s first blood bank. She also assisted five priests escape Hungary during the 1956 Hungarian uprising and served as a liaison between Hungarian Freedom Fighters and the American government.

After reaching the age of 90, she returned to Indiana in 1969 and later died in Terre Haute in 1975 at the age of 98. Jenckes was such an incredible woman who dedicated her life to public service, helping her constituents and those in need. Her story is truly inspiring and deserves to be recognition, which is why my Senate colleagues and I were pleased to honor her at the Statehouse.