Gladys Pyle, U.S. Senator

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Gladys Pyle

Birthdate: (98)
Birthplace: Huron, Beadle, SD, USA
Death: March 14, 1989 (98)
Huron, Beadle, SD, USA
Immediate Family:

Daughter of John Levis Pyle and Mary Isabella Pyle
Sister of Nellie Miser; John Shields Pyle and Mary Andrews

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Gladys Pyle, U.S. Senator

Gladys Pyle (October 4, 1890 – March 14, 1989) was a South Dakota politician and the first woman elected to the United States Senate without having previously been appointed to her position; she was also the first female senator to serve as a Republican and the first female senator from South Dakota. She was also the first female senator never to marry.

She was born to John and Mamie (Shields) Pyle and graduated from Huron College in 1911. She taught in the public high schools at Miller, Wessington, and Huron from 1912-1918. In 1923 she became first woman member of the State House of Representatives, serving from 1923-1927. Pyle then served as Secretary of State of South Dakota from 1927–1931 and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor in 1930, garnering nearly a third of the vote in the primary but losing after seven recounts of the votes. She was a member of the State securities commission from 1931-1933. She engaged in the life insurance business in private life.

Gladys, her mother Mamie, and two sisters were very involved in the Women's Suffrage movement and frequently hosted meetings of the local chapter in their house.

On November 8, 1938 she was elected as a Republican to the United States Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Peter Norbeck. She defeated Tom Berry, a former Democratic Governor of South Dakota. She served from November 9, 1938, to January 3, 1939.

Pyle took a circuitous route to the U.S. Senate, shaped by tragedy and peculiarities in South Dakota election laws. In late December 1936, Progressive-Republican Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota died after a long illness. Outgoing Democratic Governor Tom Berry, who had been defeated by a Republican in the November elections, quickly appointed Democrat Herbert Hitchcock to fill the vacancy. However, by state law, Hitchcock had to step down once the next regularly scheduled general election took place in November 1938. While a new Senator would be elected for the full term from 1939–1945, technically the seat would remain vacant from November 1938 until a successor was sworn into office in January 1939. The 75th Congress (1937–1939) had adjourned in June 1938 to prepare for the elections, and it was customary that it would not reconvene until the start of the 76th Congress (1939–1941) in January 1939. Normally, such a vacancy would provoke little concern. But as the 1938 elections took shape, rumors swirled that President Roosevelt would call for a special session after the elections to capitalize on the existing Democratic margins in both chambers of Congress. In response, the South Dakota Republican Party, which dominated the congressional delegation, pushed for a special election and sought a candidate to fill the two-month term. GOP candidate Chandler Gurney had won the nomination for the full term, but state laws prevented his name from appearing twice on the ballot.

GOP leaders turned to Gladys Pyle because she had enough name recognition and support to win without the party having to invest considerable resources in the race. She traveled the state to campaign on behalf of the entire GOP ticket, with support from the Republican National Committee, arguing that the New Deal had not done enough for South Dakotans. Pyle also tapped into a strong statewide network of Republican women’s clubs. Recognizing that her term would be brief, voters went to the polls on November 8, 1938, and chose the 48-year-old Pyle seemingly as a gesture of appreciation for her service to the state. She registered a resounding win over Democrat John T. McCullen, 58 to 42 percent of the vote, garnering nearly 10,000 votes more than the next-best vote getter on the ticket—Gurney, who won the election for the full term. It also made her the first Republican woman elected to the Senate and the first woman from either party to win election to the Senate in her own right, without having first been appointed to fill a vacancy.

Because Congress already had adjourned, and FDR never did call a special session, Pyle was never officially sworn in to the Senate. Despite the lack of committee assignments and legislative duties, she left Huron the day after Thanksgiving and drove to Washington, D.C., with her mother and an aide and spent the next five weeks in the capital as South Dakota’s Senator. She paid her own travel expenses because Members only received mileage costs if they were commuting to and from a session of Congress. Once in Washington, she and an interim appointee from California shared an office space customarily reserved for one Senator.

Pyle did not lack for things to do. She rallied support for her Depression-burdened state by pushing various highway and Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs. Pyle intervened with the Department of the Interior on behalf of landholders on Indian reservations who had suffered years of ruined crops and fallen far behind on mortgage payments. She also handled cases with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, investigated the sale of land inside a state park, and worked to expand funding for WPA projects within her state. Pyle tended to individual constituent needs ranging from pensions and hospitalization to civil service ratings. In addition, she persuaded Norwegian officials to schedule a June 1939 visit to South Dakota of the crown prince and princess of Norway during their North American travels, delighting thousands of South Dakotans of Scandinavian heritage. 'I wish I had come the day after the election,' Pyle admitted as her term expired. 'Just because the Senate is not in session is no sign a Senator cannot be of service to her constituents.'

In January 1939, Pyle returned to her insurance business and stayed closely involved in public service work.

In 1940 she became the first woman to deliver a presidential nominating speech at a national convention, speaking out for candidate Wendell Willkie.

She resumed her career in the life insurance business and also engaged in farm management. She later became a member of the South Dakota Board of Charities and Corrections 1943-1957 and agent for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. 1950-1986.

Gladys Pyle died in Huron on March 14, 1989. Her ashes are interred in Riverside Cemetery with her relatives.

The family home that she lived in from 1894 until 1985 is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been converted into a museum. It is largely unchanged from when it was built and has many of the original furnishings. The carpeting, wallpaper, windows (including three stained-glass sections), doors, interior layout, radiators, door hardware, and wood finish are original or nearly so. In fact, although a more modern gas-powered furnace has replaced the original coal-fired one, the original ornate radiators still heat the house.

The home remained largely in its original state due to the death of Gladys' father, John Levi Pyle, in 1902 of typhoid fever. John Pyle was a local attorney as well as local politician, so after his death his family had to work hard to keep the house, and little money was available for new furnishings or interior decorations.

The house contains numerous Pyle family artifacts, including her maternal grandfather's discharge papers from the 2nd New Jersey Infantry Regiment (dated March 27, 1866), photos of both of Gladys' grandparents, and the Pyle family Bible dating to the 1840s. The Huron College Rubiquat from the early 1900s (featuring pictures of her two sisters as students) is on display as well. Also, a ballot that she appeared on is framed next to the downstairs bathroom, and her father's cavalry sword and uniform from his duties as general of the South Dakota Regiment (the precursor to the South Dakota National Guard) are on display.

The upstairs bedrooms and bathroom (including Huron's first indoor bathtub) has been converted into a small apartment for the live-in caretaker and is not viewable to the public. It is located at 376 Idaho Ave SE in Huron (across from the local hospital) and is open to visitors for a nominal fee from 1pm to 3:30pm daily.

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Gladys Pyle, U.S. Senator's Timeline

October 4, 1890
Huron, Beadle, SD, USA
March 14, 1989
Age 98
Huron, Beadle, SD, USA