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Thursday, June 3, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Catherine Dean May Bedell, elected to U.S. House 6 times, dies

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YAKIMA — Catherine Dean May Bedell, the first woman elected to Congress from Washington state and producer of the first Betty Crocker radio show, is dead at age 90.

The former congresswoman, who was elected to six terms as a Republican in the 4th Congressional District under her married name at the time, Catherine Dean May, before losing in 1970, died of natural causes Friday in Rancho Mirage, Calif., relatives said.

A Yakima native, she was one of the few women to win election to national office in that period without first being appointed to replace their husbands, and many said she inspired and encouraged other women in politics.

State Rep. Mary Skinner, R-Yakima, said she met the congresswoman at a Republican Party luncheon more than 30 years ago.

"When I first saw her, she was standing in a group of men and they were listening to her. She could hold her own," Skinner said. "I was a great admirer."

Born Catherine Dean Barnes, she earned a bachelor-of-science degree at the University of Washington, obtained a teaching certificate and taught high-school English for three years in Chehalis, with a brief but pivotal interruption to study speech at the University of Southern California.

She entered broadcasting in 1940 at KMO Radio in Tacoma, then went to KOMO and KJR in Seattle, spent a couple of years in advertising and was hired by NBC in New York in 1944 as a writer and assistant commentator.

A year later, while working on the first Betty Crocker show, she married James Otis May, whom she met while he was based at Fort Lewis during World War II.

She returned to Yakima and was women's editor at KIT Radio from 1948 through 1957; she also served in the state House from 1952 to 1958, when she was nominated for Congress to replace Otis Halbert, who was retiring.

An admirer of then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, she won election in an upset over Democrat Frank LeRoux of Walla Walla in a district that, at the time, covered a vast swath of Central Washington from Oregon to British Columbia.

As the first representative from the state in decades to serve on the House Agriculture Committee, she promoted dams for irrigation and electricity production in her rural district. In her last term, she was also named to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy.

She never promoted herself as a women's rights activist, but supported the Equal Rights Amendment and worked to include a prohibition against discrimination based on gender in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

She lost the seat to to Democrat Mike McCormack, a scientist at the Hanford nuclear reservation, in 1970, obtained a divorce and married Donald Bedell. She served on the International Trade Commission from 1971 to 1981.

Survivors include a son, James C. May, president of the Air Transport Association of America, Inc., in Washington, D.C., and daughter, Melinda May Mazzetti, of San Francisco. Private services are being arranged; her son said a reception to celebrate her life will be held June 21 at the University Club in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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