Long-term Representative from Brooklyn Emanuel Celler unexpectedly lost the Democratic primary in June 1972 to Elizabeth Holtzman, a relatively unknown Brooklyn attorney and a state committeewoman. It was a notable loss and an important victory.
Celler had begun serving in Congress in 1923 when he was 35. He became the most senior member of the House of Representatives, was chair of the Judiciary Committee for over 20 years, and was fondly referred to as the Dean of the House.
Unlike Celler, Holtzman was young—just 30 years old—female, consistently liberal, anti-war, and pro-women’s rights. Her interest in moving into the national political scene stemmed from her anti-war activities as well as from her hope to help solve a myriad of domestic problems: reduce crime; build up neighborhoods; improve education; and pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which Celler had voted against. Celler’s age and women’s liberation would be among the major issues of Holtzman’s campaign.
With less money and name recognition, Holtzman campaigned full-time, spending long days greeting and talking with constituents on the streets, in the subways, and in supermarkets. Meanwhile, Celler discounted her campaign. Just a few months prior to the primary vote, Celler was quoted as saying that he had never heard of Holtzman. “She’s a nonentity . . . I don’t know anything about this lady. She doesn’t exist, as far as I’m concerned.” He referred to Holtzman as a “toothpick trying to topple the Washington Monument.”
Holtzman’s claims that Celler was indifferent to his Brooklyn district and out of touch with the times resonated with many constituents. But the formidable challenge was not only against Celler, it was against the Brooklyn political machine which supported him.
The Brooklyn democratic political machine had the money and the influence to help their candidates—like Celler—win and stay in office. Holtzman was a reform candidate whom Brooklyn boss Meade Esposito derisively referred to as “the broad running against Manny Celler.” Holtzman recounted in her 1996 memoir Who Said It Would Be Easy? that
despite Esposito’s cracks, being a woman helped. A woman cut a different figure from the image of a politician as a cigar-smoking man, and at five feet, three and a half inches, I provided a definite contrast. So few women campaigned for office that whenever people met me, they remembered it.
The press reported the initial tally after the voting, showing Holtzman winning 15,557 votes to Celler’s 14,995. As a young woman defeating the most senior man in the House, her victory attracted attention. The New York Times mentioned that Celler had been “defeated by a woman young enough to be his granddaughter.” The Daily Argus in Mount Vernon, New York, simply titled the story “Woman defeats Celler.” The Boston Globe noted that it was “a political miracle.”
Holtzman went on to win the general election in November against her Republican opponent, Nicholas R. Macchio, Jr. Her win meant that she joined Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug as New York’s third woman Representative in Congress. As for Celler, he retired from politics after his loss in the primary. Although the Liberal party chose him as a candidate, he did not campaign.
The novelty of Holtzman’s win would continue to create press for many months. One New York Times article from October 1972 pondered some of the changes to take place: “Congressman Holtzman’s office? Or Congresswoman? ‘In my district,’ she said, ‘everyone calls me ‘Liz.’”
Elizabeth Holtzman Papers http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:RAD.SCHL:sch00629
Elizabeth Holtzman Additional Papers http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:RAD.SCHL:sch01380
Elizabeth Holtzman Audio Collection http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:RAD.SCHL:sch01414
Elizabeth Holtzman Moving Image Collection http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:RAD.SCHL:sch00630