Helen Douglas Mankin was the first woman elected to Congress from Georgia.
Born in Atlanta in 1894, Helen was educated in the Midwest, where some of her family roots ran deep. Her grandfather was a Union Army officer in the Civil War, and her great-grandmother was on the first faculty of the progressive Rockford Female Seminary in Illinois. Her parents, Hamilton Douglas Sr. and Corinne William Douglas, were both lawyers who graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1887. Her mother was one of only 208 women attorneys in the United States at that time, but as a woman in Atlanta in 1887, she was denied the right to practice law. So she taught school instead, eventually winning national recognition for her contributions to the education of women in the Atlanta public school system.
Following four generations of women in her family, Helen graduated from Rockford College. In 1921, in a joint ceremony with her mother, Helen was admitted to the state bar.
Before launching a law career, Helen joined her sister, Jean, on a daredevil drive across America and back—at a time when national highways were still a thing of the future. Not only sightseeing, but also scouting possibilities for relocating her life and career in the West, Helen ultimately decided to return to Georgia.
In 1927, Helen married Guy Mark Mankin Sr. Interrupting a promising law career, she spent the next five years caring for her husband and his seven-year-old son, Guy Jr., as Guy Sr. pursued an engineering career that took them to South America, New York and Chicago.
Helen resumed practicing law in 1933 with her family’s permanent return to Atlanta. Once settled, she engaged in the fight against child labor. In 1936, with child labor a principal point of her platform, she won election to the Georgia legislature as a representative of Fulton County. She was a persuasive campaigner, and her obvious integrity, concern, easy manner and wit won her a loyal constituency among both city and country populations. She served five terms in the state legislature, a tenure extending longer than that of any woman, and many of the men, of that era. During her career in the legislature she introduced measures to reform the prison system, improve highways and regulate against abuse and child labor.
On February 12, 1946, in a special election to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of incumbent Robert Ramspeck, Helen Douglas Mankin was elected to Congress from the fifth district of Georgia. She won by a narrow margin—a margin accounted for by the African American vote. It was the first time African Americans in the twentieth century had exercised influence on the balance of power in a Georgia election.
Helen was the only one of 17 candidates in the race who actively sought the African American vote, meeting with various groups in churches and in neighborhoods to solicit support. Seeking the African American vote was a unique step for a white politician in 1946, but Helen strongly believed that the depression, New Deal and World War II had readied Southerners to exchange old dogmas for new attitudes.
In April 1946, the Supreme Court opened Georgia’s Democratic primary to African Americans. In the July primary Mankin was renominated to Congress by 53,611 votes, compared to 42,482 for her principal opponent, James Davis. Despite a decisive victory by vote count, Davis was declared the winner, due to Georgia’s county unit system, which was resurrected to effectively nullify the black vote.
In a hostile political environment, Helen was defeated again in a race against Davis in 1948. She continued her law practice but never again held public office.
In 1950, without success, Helen initiated a federal suit against the county unit system, but the system remained in place until the 1962 reversal with the Baker v. Carr ruling. Though she had helped, in the end, to win an equal vote for African Americans, Helen didn’t live to see the reversal. She died in 1956 from injuries suffered in an automobile accident.
Taped interviews with state officials. Georgia Government Documentation Project, Special Collections.
Georgia State University, Atlanta.
The New Georgia Encyclopedia: www.georgiaencyclopedia.org