More than 300 women have served in Congress since the first female member took her seat in 1917. Their progression through leadership ranks was slow but sure. In many ways, their integration into government reflected women's entry into public life.
Rankin worked as a professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Her organizing efforts yielded Montana women the right to vote in 1914. Candidate Rankin promised to address social welfare issues and advocate for a constitutional amendment to grant voting rights to women.
Rankin warned constituents that she opposed US involvement in World War I. And when the time came, she voted against it.
Robertson was also the first woman to preside over a session of the House. Ironically, Robertson opposed woman's suffrage. Yet she was assigned to the Committee on Woman Suffrage.
Her reputation for supporting veterans helped her into office. But her opposition to the World War I Veterans Bonus Bill led to her departure after one term.
Women members demonstrated early on that they would not agree on every issue. For example, Prohibition was enacted under pressure from the largely female temperance movement. By the 1930s, rising public sentiment demanded its repeal. Female congresswomen split over the question in 1933. Some cited moral grounds to keep alcohol illegal. Others voted for repeal to stimulate the flagging economy.
The Great Depression and support for or against New Deal policies proved to be the most significant factor for women retaining their seats in the 1930s. Roosevelt’s majorities swept Republican women out and Democratic women in.
Senator Hattie Caraway and Representatives Caroline O’Day and Mary Norton each chaired committees in 1939. All were Democrats.
First elected to the House in 1925, Edith Nourse Rogers served 18 terms until her death in 1961. A volunteer nursing assistant during World War I, she spent a lifetime advocating for veterans. She introduced the funding that created the veterans' hospital system. And she secured pensions for army nurses.
After US entry into World War II, Rogers introduced a bill creating the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. The WAAC measure allowed up to 150,000 women to volunteer for military service. In 1942, a new law granted women official military status in the Army. Soon after, women joined other uniformed services including the Navy (WAVEs), Air Force (WASPs), and Coast Guard (SPARs).
Following the war, the US set an expansive foreign policy agenda with the involvement of key congresswomen. Emily Taft Douglas advocated for establishment of a post-war United Nations. Chase Going Woodhouse pushed for the Bretton Woods Agreements, creating the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Edna Kelly, head of the European Affairs Subcommittee on the Foreign Affairs panel, backed creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Margaret Chase Smith developed a reputation for independence. During the height of Senator Joseph McCarthy's red scare, she vocally denounced him in her "Declaration of Conscience" address. Although she did not mention McCarthy by name, her meaning was unmistakable. She also took her colleagues to task for condoning the permissive context in which McCarthyism was allowed to flourish.
The thirty nine women who entered Congress during this period were challenging in their own ways. They were less deferential to tradition and prioritized action over fitting in. Many were reformers who championed causes including civil rights and women’s rights and supported Vietnam War protesters.
In 1964, Patsy Takemoto Mink, from Hawaii, became the first woman of color and first Asian American woman elected to Congress. Mink championed women’s issues, including passage of the Women’s Education Equity Act and co-sponsorship of Title IX.
Mink’s principled stance against the Vietnam War set her at odds with her military-dependent district.
“It was such a horrible thought to have this war that it really made no difference to me that I had a military constituency. It was a case of living up to my own views and my own conscience. . . . There was no way in which I could compromise my views on how I felt about it.”
Bella Abzug emerged as a symbol of the Women’s Rights movement. Elected to the House in 1971, she ran on an antiwar and pro–feminist platform. She wrote the first version of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which prohibited discrimination against women by banks in lending. She also introduced groundbreaking legislation aimed at increasing the rights of lesbians and gays.
An increasing number of women entered office with young families in tow. They faced the challenge of balancing a political career with family life. Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who served from 1972 to 1979, was the first sitting member of Congress to give birth in office. Burke's daughter was born in 1973. Burke was both celebrated and reviled in the press.
“If you ran for Congress at that time and you were a woman, everything about you was always open to the press. Your life was an open book,” she remembered. “It was unusual for a woman who was in business or an elective office to talk about having family and being able to carry out their duties. I, personally, have always felt that women have a right to choose what they want to do.”
The 1970s saw many firsts. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, born in Havana, Cuba, was the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress. She was first elected in 1989 during a special election. She served as the chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the 112th Congress.
Ros-Lehtinen, pictured third from the right, sponsored legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). The WASP was established during World War II, and from 1942 to 1943, more than a thousand women joined, flying sixty million miles of non-combat military missions.
Carol Mosely-Braun was the first African American woman elected to the Senate, serving one term from 1992 to 1999. Mosely-Braun, who had held local offices in Chicago, was motivated to run by the spectacle of the US Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas and the treatment of his accuser Anita Hill.
She was one of four women Senators elected in what became known as "The Year of the Woman."
The 1992 election shifted US politics. More women ran for office in 1992 than ever before in US history, earning it the nickname: the “Year of the Woman”. Four of the eleven women Senate candidates won their races as did 47 of the record 106 women running for the House. After the election, women made up 11% of Congressional membership, a historic high point.
A changing political landscape catapulted more women into office. As the Cold War ended, the nation’s attention turned inward. Voters worried over the prolonged economic recession, failing schools, and rising health care costs as well as environmental issues and the AIDS crisis. Popular perceptions that women were better on domestic issues combined with increased fundraising among women’s political action groups, such as NOW, Emily’s List, and the Women’s Campaign Fund, swept women into office.
The 1992 elections inaugurated a decade of gains for women in Congress in both their number and seniority. These gains were capped by the election of Representative Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House in 2007. She became the first woman to serve as Speaker. The second position in Presidential succession, after the Vice President.
Three hundred eighteen women have assumed congressional seats over the past one hundred years. Half of them were elected after 1977. They legislated on behalf of their principles and constituents. Though still a small percentage of Congress, they have steadily risen in number and up the leadership ranks. They exert influence in every aspect of governance.
From the first to the most recent, these women demonstrated that a woman’s place is not only in the House . . . but also the Senate.
On behalf of National Women's History Museum
Elizabeth L. Maurer - Director of Program
Jeanette Patrick - Outreach Program Manager
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