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Early in her legislative career, U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson was frequently obliged to correct people who referred to her as the “second woman in Texas” (after Barbara Jordan) to be elected to Congress.
That’s because she wasn’t the second, nor was Barbara the first. Though the fact has largely been lost from the pages of history by now, the honor of being the first Texas woman to join the U.S. House of Representatives actually went to Lera Millard Thomas in March 1966, when she won a special election held to fill the congressional seat that had been occupied by her late husband Albert Thomas since 1936.
During her term, Lera served on the congressional Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, continued her husband’s championship of the Houston-based space program and other economic issues benefiting Texans, and completed a tour of war-torn Vietnam. She made a second trip to Vietnam after she left office, this time to distribute letters to U.S. troops and pen a wartime correspondence column for the Houston Chronicle.
Although Lera was a newcomer to Congress, she was no ingenue when it came to politics. Prior to her time in the House, Lera helped manage her husband’s election campaigns and coached him on the important public policy issues of the day. In 1963, she sat next to President John F. Kennedy on the eve of his fateful visit to Dallas, following a day of campaign activities in Fort Worth.
Lera left Congress after her husband’s term ran out, and declined to run again despite the urging of her supporters to toss her hat in the ring in the next election. In later life, she served as a consultant for the Vietnam Bureau of the U.S. State Department’s Agency for International Development, and also helpe