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.