Catherine May Bedell. Photo courtesy of Washington State University Libraries, MASC, Catherine May Collection

Catherine May Bedell

First U.S. Representative

“I wondered what women were screaming about when I went to Congress, because we had equal rights in the state of Washington for years.” - Catherine May Bedell

Her picture says it all: Catherine May was full of life, pretty, and smart. Her extraordinary career included six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and three terms as a Washington State lawmaker. On the national scene, the Yakima native advocated for the agricultural industry, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and women’s rights. As a lawmaker, she voted with the Republican Party, supported private power and laid the groundwork for public television.

Despite her insistence that she was no feminist, May took on the “Good Old Boys Club,” albeit with grace. Once mystified by the gripes of women who complained of life in a man’s world, May later cracked, “Boy, I learned.” In Congress, she petitioned for more women’s hours at her gym. Unafraid to speak her mind, May once posed to the Editor-in-Chief of Family Weekly: “Are the feminists justifiably angry? Are they being “exploited,” denied equal rights in the area of wages? Opportunity? Sexual expression? Yes. Yes, yes. Yes. Probably yes.”

Catherine Barnes was born in Yakima, Washington on May 18, 1914, to Charles Barnes, a real estate broker and businessman, and Pauline Barnes, a member of a prominent family. The Great Depression bankrupted her father’s department store and took May’s college savings along with it. She enrolled at Yakima Valley Junior College and later transferred to the University of Washington.

May briefly taught school and then held a series of radio broadcasting jobs in the Puget Sound, New York City, and Yakima. Along the way, she met and married James May in 1942, who served in the U.S. Army. They married when May produced the first-ever Betty Crocker Show in New York City.

The Mays returned to Yakima and raised two children, but the marriage eventually ran its course. (May married Don Bedell in 1970.)

In 1952, and at the urging of her father, May ran for and won a seat in the Washington State House of Representatives. Six years later she defeated well-known Democrat Frank LeRoux in a bid that took her to the U.S. Congress.

May’s committee assignments included agriculture and atomic energy. During her tenure, she co-sponsored the historic Equal Pay Act of 1963.

When she left Congress, May was appointed to the U.S. International Trade Commission. In 1982, she was appointed to the President on the 50 States Project, established to jettison laws that discriminated against women.