Newspaper columnist May Craig was identified as a Maine Yankee with a mind ‘as tough as a very old Down East lobster.’ But the feisty longtime correspondent for the Guy Gannett newspaper chain in Maine was actually a southerner.
May Craig was one of the few women who covered general news rather than ‘women’s’ or ‘society’ news. She waged a fierce campaign for women’s rights from the New Deal to the Lyndon B. Johnson administration.
During her 40-plus years as a journalist, May Craig tore down barriers to women, from getting ladies’ bathrooms installed outside the congressional press gallery to adding an amendment to a landmark piece of legislation.
She was born Elisabeth May Adams on Dec. 19, 1888, in Coosaw Mines, S.C., the daughter of Elizabeth and Alexander Adams. Her father was a blacksmith and then a phosphate miner. Her mother died when she was four after giving birth to twins. At six, she was taken in as a foster child by Frances and William Weymouth, who owned the phosphate mines in which her father worked.
The Weymouths were not affectionate, and May Craig took refuge in the family library. When she was 12 they moved to Washington, D.C.
The Weymouths wanted her to attend finishing school after high school. She refused and enrolled in the George Washington University School of Nursing. She broke completely with the Weymouths in 1909 upon her marriage to Donald A. Craig, a Washington columnist for the New York Herald.
They had two children, Donald and Betty Adams. A nanny freed May to pursue a writing career and support the women’s rights movement.
In 1923 her husband was severely injured in an automobile accident and May Craig began to help him with his columns for the Guy Gannett chain in Maine. She organized a news bureau in 1931 and got a byline for her Gannett columns. By the time her husband died in 1936, she was an established Washington journalist. Her Maine column, Inside in Washington, appeared in four Maine newspapers. In the early 1940s she had a radio show for two Maine stations.
On the afternoon of Dec. 9, 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt held the first press conference after Pearl Harbor. In a well-known exchange, the president and May Craig bantered about Fred Hale, outgoing U.S. senator from Maine. The transcript reads:
MISS MAY CRAIG: You’ve got a new system out there. (Referring to security at the entrance.)
THE PRESIDENT: What?
MISS MAY CRAIG: A new system out there. It’s going to take a long time to get in.
THE PRESIDENT: What’s that? What do you have to do? Have they frisked you? (Laughter)
MISS MAY CRAIG: Practically.
THE PRESIDENT: Now May, I don’t think that’s nice.
MISS MAY CRAIG: They did Fred Hale once.
THE PRESIDENT: I will have to hire a female Secret Service agent around here to do the frisking.
MISS MAY CRAIG: Remember the time they frisked Senator Hale at a reception?
THE PRESIDENT: Terribly funny.
MISS MAY CRAIG: He never got over it.
THE PRESIDENT: He never got over it.
MISS MAY CRAIG: The sacred Hale person.
THE PRESIDENT: He was here before you and I were born. (Pause here as newspapermen continue to file in.)
In 1944, May Craig got accredited as a war correspondent and gave eyewitness accounts of the V-bombing in London, the Battle of Normandy and the liberation of Paris. All the while, she kept up a running battle with the military brass who tried to keep her away from the war news.
Late in her career Craig said “Bloody Mary of England once said that when she died they would find `Calais’ graven on her heart” (a reference to a key French outpost lost during Mary’s reign). “When I die, there will be the word `facilities,’ so often it has been used to prevent me from doing what men reporters could do.”
After the war, she continued writing her column and was a frequent panelist on Meet the Press. Washington Post editor Meg Greenfield called her a hard-driving reporter who was known for her doggedness in asking questions. Wrote Greenfield,
She used to pull her chair up until she was right under the nose of Everett Dirksen at his crowded, nontelevised weekly Q-and-A sessions in the Senate Press Gallery, and she would never release him from her fixed, accusing stare, except when she took notes. “Does that answer your question, May dear?” Dirksen invariably asked, with mock solicitude, at the end of his remarks, to which, with a disgusted shake of her hat, she would just as invariably reply, “No.”
Craig is credited with getting language into the 1964 Civil Rights Act that extend some of its provisions to women. It’s called the ‘May Craig Amendment.’ According to some people, civil rights opponents supported the amendment because they thought it was too preposterous to pass.
By the 1960s she was an elderly woman who wore flowered hats and gloves and didn’t seem to mind being treated as a harmless crank or dotty old lady. She was still as tough as her middle-aged, male competitors.
May Craig retired in 1965. She died 10 years later on July 15, 1975, in Silver Spring, Md.
With thanks to Washington by Meg Greenfield and Notable American Women: Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary by Barbara Sicherman and Carol H. Green. All photos courtesy Library of Congress.