Aunt Jane

“Miss Jane E. Leonard is selected for Congress Democrats of this District will give women a chance.”  This mundane headline appeared in the March 25, 1922 edition of the Indiana Democrat, and it seemed to understate the newsworthiness of an event.  It was a historic occasion.  Miss Jane E. Leonard, as the Democratic candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania’s Twenty-seventh Congressional District, was one of the first women to seek a national political office as a major party candidate in Pennsylvania.*  Since only ten women in the entire country ran for congressional seats as choices of major political parties in 1922, Miss Leonard attracted national attention.

Jane E. Leonard was the former preceptress of Indiana State Normal School (known today as Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP)).  The former Leonard Hall on the IUP campus had memorialized her name.  She served “the Normal” from its opening in 1875 until her retirement in 1921.  Then, less than a year after her retirement and at a spry eighty-one years of age, she ran for Congress.  This episode is both more incredible and, at the same time, less incredible than it seemed at first notice.

The 1922 election was only the second national election following the enfranchisement of women by the Nineteenth Amendment.  Miss Leonard had not been that active in politics; her life was spent in education.  And at eighty-one, it was an amazing age to be launching a new career.  She was, moreover, a Democrat in an area dominated by the Republican party. Despite this, she ran extremely well, polling a far larger percentage of the votes cast than any other Democratic congressional candidate in a ten-year period.

“Aunt Jane,” as Miss Jane Leonard was affectionately known by the thousands who attended the State Normal School in Indiana, came to Indiana from the Clearfield County area.  She was born on December 27, 1840, in Leonard, Pennsylvania.  Her family was so well established in the area, that there is reflected in the vicinity’s place names – Leonard Station, Leonard House, Leonard School, and Leonard Run as well as the town itself.

It is likely that her early education was at Leonard School, a gift to the rural community from her father.  Her life-long involvement in education began at the age of fifteen when she first taught in the public schools of her native Clearfield County.  Later, desiring more advanced educational preparation, she entered Millersville State Normal School, the first institution of its kind in Pennsylvania.  Then she spent some time teaching in Lancaster County schools.  Her attainments as a student at Millersville, her teaching experiences, and her personal qualities led to Miss Leonard joining the Millersville faculty in 1868 as instructor of history and mathematics.

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Jane Leonard

In 1875, the Board of Trustees of the new State Normal School at Indiana asked Dr. J.P. Wickersham, Pennsylvania’s superintendent of education and the founder and first principal of Millersville State Normal School, to recommend a candidate for the position of preceptress and instructor of English literature.  He recommended Jane E. Leonard.

For the next forty-six years, Miss Leonard served Indiana.  When she retired in 1921 she was awarded emeritus status and given permission to continue occupying her apartment in John Sutton Hall.  As an education she always stressed that her students should be ambitious both for themselves and their communities, that they should be active and participate in their world, that they should shoulder the responsibilities offered to them, and that they should work to better the world they lived in. In that educational philosophy lie clues which make “Aunt Jane’s” political adventure less incredible than it first suggests.

Although she could not even vote in a national election until she was seventy-nine years old, Jane E. Leonard had developed an active interest in politics. She was lauded as having a wide knowledge of politics and political men.**  As a member as the Indiana community, Miss Leonard while not seen as a political firebrand, had not been politically bashful.  She was accustomed to interrupting her return from Sunday church service to impose herself on one of the local newspaper editors or political leaders in talk over the public issues.  According to the March 23, 1922 Indiana Weekly Messenger, Miss Leonard “was one of the campaigners for years for equal franchise and has campaigned also for prohibition.  She never neglects an opportunity to assail the monopolistic practices of the tariff barons and speaks for National economy, friendly relations with other nations, universal peace and human advancement.”

Her political orientation appeared foreordained.  The Indiana Weekly Messenger said bluntly, she is “a democrat by nature and it was inevitable that with the enfranchisement of women she would be found aligned from the outset with the Democratic party.”  Her affinity for involvement in her interests, an “Aunt Jane” trait, made it rather natural that she later gravitated toward political stewardship when the opportunity presented itself.  In 1922, she was chairman of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Fund, devoted to soliciting monies for Wilsonian goals, chairman of the Indiana County Ladies Democratic Committee, and president of the Indiana County Democratic Women Voters League.  The octogenarian was one to give her personal time and support to those matters that personally touched her.

The challenge of being the Democratic candidate in the Twenty-seventh District’s congressional race was not a quest that she eagerly sought.  The distinguished lady had to be sought out, and, according to the Indiana Evening Gazette, “Her friends…demanding a fit representative in congress insisted that she permit her name to be used.  Miss Leonard did not make any effort for the nomination, letting her name be used but not spending a cent in a campaign or making one speech.”

The days preceding her nomination for the Democratic primary, Miss Leonard had another and very different, political interest – to secure the Republican gubernatorial nomination for Indiana’s native son John S. Fisher.  Although she was serving as the chairman of the Indiana County Ladies Democratic Committee, she strongly endorsed Fisher.  She attended the formal opening rally of his campaign in front of the Indiana County Courthouse, she wrote an open letter to the alumni of the Normal School urging their support for Fisher, and she later addressed the annual reunion meeting of the Allegheny County ISNS Alumni Association stressing the need of their support of his candidacy.  The Indiana Republican press praised her as a “grand old lady.”

While such incongruent activities might have branded Miss Leonard as a political maverick, they were in keeping with her character.  John S. Fisher, as a former Indiana Normal student, was one of “her boys” in whom she had confidence.  She declared that “Democrat though she was, she’d vote for him for governor if he’d capture the Republican nomination for that office.”  Her open support of the Republican Fisher was simply an indication that she never was and never could have been a narrow political partisan.

The primary campaign was very quiet since Miss Leonard was unopposed, and her opening political activity reflected that situation.  If any event served as a campaign kickoff it was the Democratic Ladies Tea which was held on March 30.  Miss Leonard presented the opening remarks which contained some advice on the Indiana County Democratic campaign.  The state chairman of the Women’s Democratic Committee of Pennsylvania was in attendance.  The Indiana Democrat hailed the event as “A Fine Success.”  The first public endorsement of Leonard’s candidacy, and the only known one in Indiana County, came on April 5 when the Joseph M. Blakely Camp, No. 71, United Spanish War Veterans unanimously endorsed her.  These were the only public acknowledgements in the Indiana press of the Leonard campaign prior to the May primary election.  Of course an active campaign is not required of an unopposed primary candidate.

The fall general election, however, was a different situation.  Miss Leonard’s political interests and knowledge must have suggested to her the seemingly insurmountable obstacle she was facing.  Pennsylvania in 1922 was essentially a one party state – Republican.  The Twenty-seventh Congressional District was solidly Republican, and Indiana County was rock-ribbed Republican. The primary returns reinforced this general knowledge.  In Indiana Borough, for example, only 124 Democrats bothered to vote while 1,481 Republicans cast their ballots.  In Indiana County, running unopposed, Leonard received 667 votes while a total Republican vote of 8,633 was split among three contestants.  In the fall when the voter registration for the Twenty-seventh Congressional District was announced it favored the Republicans over the Democrats, 68 percent to 23 percent.  Certainly a bleak prospect faced the novice candidate.

To make matters worse, her Republican opponent was formidable.  He was Nathan L. Strong, the incumbent Congressman from Brookville, Jefferson County.  Certainly everything was a disadvantage: Miss Leonard was running for her first elected political office, her opponent was an incumbent seeking his fourth congressional term.  She was eighty-one years of age, her opponent was sixty-three.  She was a woman, he was a man.  The odds were staggering.  There was little wonder that William K. Hutchinson, a national news correspondent, included Miss Lenard among the five feminine congressional candidates who had only “a chance in a hundred” of winning.  It could be suggested that perhaps, at least in “Aunt Jane’s” case, Hutchinson was even underestimating the odds.

It could be argued that Miss Leonard was not really a serious contender.  If newspaper advertisement is any indication, the Democrats spent little money on the campaign.  The Leonard campaign trail in Indiana County was not overly onerous.  It is possible that the Democrats, faced with the impossibility of winning the election, had conceded from the start.

Jane E. Leonard, nevertheless, seemed to use the public exposure to continue to stress ideals important to her. During her campaigning, light though it was, she worked to further her causes.  “Aunt Jane” challenged women to involve themselves in politics.  “We are in politics,” she declared, “and we are going to do our duty.  Our duty is to do the best we know how.”  In another instance she lectured the newly enfranchised women on “the importance of women taking the responsibilities which are now theirs with the assuming the principles of enfranchisement, an action which at the present time they are not prone to do.”  She became known for her positions on what were to her the vital issues, some of them most progressive – the inclusion of a secretary of education in the president’s cabinet, a tariff used only for revenue, measures to insure fiscal responsibility in national government, and election victories for Democratic candidates.

Miss Leonard, always bound by her principles, could not be bound by party lines.  She acclaimed the educational program of Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor William C. Sproul.  That program had been embodied in the Edmonds Act which aimed at consolidating schools, increasing aid to education, increasing aid to education, and standardizing curriculum, teachers’ qualifications, and salaries.  She publicly acknowledged that Dr. Finegan, the Republican-appointed superintendent of public of public education, had “done more to advance education in the past three years than had been accomplished in the preceding ten years.”

She apparently did not have many opportunities to express her ideals.  Her reported public appearances following the primary were at the Indiana County Congress of Women’s Clubs meeting in June and the one day Democratic County Tour in September.  It was an incident at the Cookport Fair, one of the stops on the County Tour, that permits a glimpse of “Aunt Jane” on the hustings.  One writer described the scene this way: “As she climbed aboard the hay wagon, the veteran educator carried her 83 [sic] years as though they were a mere 50.  She had a sprightly step and her voice was strong as she urged the assembled voters to support the Democratic candidates from top to bottom.”

Given the light campaigning effort, given the political realities, the November election results were surprising.  The eighty-one year old, former educator carried 37 percent of the vote in the Twenty-seventh Congressional District to her opponent’s 54 percent, and 30 percent in Indiana County to his 55 percent.  The popular vote was 18,682 to 12,927 and 5,071 to 2,764 respectively.  A loss by a landslide, yes, but a comparably minor landslide.  In 1920, Strong’s victory was 66 percent to 25 percent in the District and 70 percent to 16 percent in the County; in 1924 Strong would win by 59 percent to 18 percent and 59 percent to 13 percent.  The neophyte, maiden politician had done remarkably well.

The full story of Miss Leonard’s relative success rests more in events outside of the Twenty-seventh Congressional District since the Pennsylvania Republican party that year had been severely splintered by internal struggles.  The election of 1922, nevertheless, was a surprising story, and “Aunt Jane” really fared no worse than any of the other nine female candidates who were running for Congress – they all lost (even Alice M. Robertson, the incumbent congresswoman from Oklahoma).

Miss Jane E. Leonard, an Indiana institution as an educator, probably considered herself to be continuing her educational goals as a politician in teaching by example the duty of personal responsibility and active participation, expounding one’s convictions and ideals, and attempting to better the world.  If there was a loser in the 1922 election, it was not “Aunt Jane.”  Her “political whirl” was the giving of a practical lesson – she was engaged, as always, in educating.

*Ellen D. Davis was, in the same election, running for the congressional seat in Pennsylvania’s Second District.

** The “Indiana legend” that James Buchanan, fifteenth president of the United States, had proposed marriage to Miss Leonard has no basis in historical fact.