A Woman to Know: Helen Gahagan Douglas

I believe Helen Gahagan Douglas was one of the grandest, most eloquent, deepest thinking people we have had in American politics. — Sen. Alan Cranston

(image via Online Archive of California)


Helen was the literal inspiration for Disney's Evil Queen character — just compare the same haughty eyebrows and full mouth you see above to the stern visage in Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty. You'll see a total match. By the time Snow White premiered in 1937, Helen had starred in her only major film role, as the mysteriously beautiful "She" of H. Rider Haggard's adventure epic. In "She," Helen's high priestess character wears full masks and long sleeves to hide her powerful beauty; with just one glance of her naked eyes, grown men would fall dead.

After her gigs as a Disney model and "She" star dried up, Helen turned to politics. In 1940, she became the first woman elected to Congress in California, as a House Representative for Northern California. There, she vice-chaired multiple committees and (allegedly) began a love affair with not-yet-President Lyndon B. Johnson.

But in her political career, Helen made one fatal enemy: Richard Nixon. In her 1950 campaign for Senate, Nixon painted Helen as a Communist sympathizer, a "Pink Lady" in cahoots with the Soviets — "pink right down to her underwear." His campaign tactics smeared her political record, foreshadowed the "Red Scare" and pushed Helen to coin a nickname that would follow Nixon for the rest of his life: "Tricky Dick."

And Nixon won, of course. And when he won, that was the end of Helen's political career. She returned to acting for a bit, always supporting Nixon's political opponents, but never running again herself.

As she put it later in life, "I became active in politics because I saw the possibility, if we all sat back and did nothing, of a world in which there would no longer be any stages for actors to act on."

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