Leonor Alice Kretzer Sullivan was the first woman elected to the US Congress from a Missouri district, and she served in the House of Representatives for twenty-four years (1953–1977). She was born on August 21, 1902, in St. Louis to Frederick W. and Nora Jostrand Kretzer. After receiving her education in public and private schools in St. Louis, she attended evening classes at Washington University, where she studied vocational psychology. Sullivan’s early work experiences included teaching business arithmetic and accounting, and serving as director of a business school in St. Louis.
On December 27, 1941, Leonor Kretzer married John Berchmas Sullivan, a Democratic congressman from Missouri’s Eleventh District who served in the Seventy-Seventh, Seventy-Ninth, Eighty-First, and until his death in the Eighty-Second sessions. Leonor Sullivan became his administrative assistant, and she also managed his election campaigns. After her husband died on January 29, 1951, she was an administrative aid to another Missouri representative, Leonard Irving, who served the Fourth Congressional District.
In May 1952 Sullivan returned to Missouri to campaign for the Democratic nomination for St. Louis’s Third Congressional District, which had recently been redrawn. The previous year, in the special election to fill her husband’s unexpired term, Democratic Party leaders had refused to nominate her because they believed a woman could not win. However, she proved them wrong by defeating six men in the Democratic primary and then winning the general election by a two-to-one margin over the Republican incumbent. Although her first victory was mainly seen as a vote for the widow of John B. Sullivan (in fact, she was allowed to be listed on the ballot as Mrs. John B. Sullivan), Leonor Sullivan won the next eleven elections on her own record. She was a member of the Eighty-Third through the Ninety-Fourth Congresses, and after 1969 she was recognized as the “dean” of congresswomen. Sullivan served on the Banking and Currency Committee and the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. She was also a member of the National Commission on Mortgage and Interest Rates, the National Commission of Consumer Finance, the Joint Committee on Defense Production, and the National Commission on Food Marketing.
Throughout her years in Congress, Sullivan made consumer interests her urgent concern. She sponsored measures to make the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act more effective by requiring, among other things, the labeling of ingredients on cosmetics, banning flavored aspirin for children, and adding more FDA inspectors to check for unfit food products at processing plants. Sullivan led a major fight in Congress for “truth in lending” when she sponsored the Consumer Credit Protection Act, designed to inform consumers of the actual annual interest rates they would pay on loans, especially on “revolving charge accounts” that many department stores offered customers. In signing the bill into law in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave special recognition to Sullivan’s role in its passage.
Sullivan authored the Food Stamp plan as early as 1954, but not until 1959 was it included in an agriculture bill that passed Congress. Other bills she sponsored or cosponsored included tire safety, housing for the elderly, and training for teachers of gifted children as well as handicapped children. She successfully fought to allow the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen to continue to operate as overnight excursion boats after an interpretation of the Safety at Sea Act threatened to eliminate their trips on the Mississippi River.
From her first year in Washington, Sullivan worked with others from Missouri to provide funding for construction of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial on the St. Louis riverfront. In honor of her efforts in making the Gateway Arch and the Westward Expansion Museum realities, the city of St. Louis in 1983 renamed Wharf Street as Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard.
Although Sullivan was a cosponsor of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, she was the only woman in the House who did not vote for the Equal Rights Amendment. However, she definitely believed that more women needed to serve in Congress to see that measures affecting the family and general social issues received sufficient attention.
Upon her retirement in 1977, Sullivan headed the Consumer Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Board, and in 1980 she was elected for a term as president of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association. Among the awards and honors bestowed upon her were the Distinguished Service Award from the Consumer Federation of America, the Americanism Award from the Jewish War Veterans of Missouri, and the Levee Stone Award from Downtown St. Louis Incorporated.
Four years after she retired, Sullivan married Russell G. Archibald, who preceded her in death on March 19, 1987. Leonor K. Sullivan died in St. Louis County on September 1, 1988.
Chamberlin, Hope. A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973.
Dains, Mary K., ed. Show Me Missouri Women: Selected Biographies. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1989.
Kaptur, Marcy. Women of Congress: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1996.
Who’s Who of American Women. Chicago: A. N. Marquis, 1973.
Published March 3, 2021; Last updated March 8, 2021
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