Mar 1, 2017

Legislating History: 100 Years of Women in Congress

National Women’s History Museum

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.

1917
Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress. A Republican, she won her election on August 29, 1916 to occupy one of Montana's two at-large seats. Rankin entered Congress three years before all women in the United States had the right to vote.

Rankin presented her credentials and claimed her seat on April 2, 1917.

“I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she observed, “but I won’t be the last.”

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.

Montana's voters turned her out of office after one term. She returned for a second term in 1941.

“No one will pay any attention to me this time,” Rankin proclaimed after her victory. “There is nothing unusual about a woman being elected.”

1917-1934
The 19th amendment's ratification in 1920 meant that, for the first time, women across the country could not only vote but also run for office. Four women took seats in Congress in 1921. One of them,  Mae Ella Nolan of California, became the first woman to chair a congressional committee.

America's first female senator, Rebecca Felton served for just 24 hours after Georgia’s governor appointed her to fill the remainder of a term.

Alice Robertson of Oklahoma became the second woman elected to the House of Representatives during a regular election.

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.

The first generation of congresswomen arrived without experience in elected office. However, many came of age during the Progressive Era. They fought for women’s voting rights, public health, and against child labor. Though lacking official experience, they knew politics.

Ruth Hanna McCormick served as the head of the Republican Women’s National Executive committee before taking her House seat in 1929.

McCormick went on to become the first woman to manage a Presidential campaign. In 1940 she led Thomas E. Dewey's campaign for the Republican nomination.

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.

1935-1954
Thirty six women entered Congress from 1935 to 1954. They arrived with more experience than their predecessors, and several rose to influence.  They took seats on prestigious committees including Agriculture, Armed Services, Banking and Currency, and Judiciary. Five served on the Foreign Affairs Committee, a key post both before and after the US entered World War II. Their leadership came during a tumultuous period that included expanding government social programs, a world war, and the start of the Cold War.

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).

In 1948, Margaret Chase Smith's Women's Armed Forces Integration Act permanently included women in the military.

Women legislators during the post-war period focused less on traditional women's issues than their predecessors. Many minimized gender distinction, insisting that they represented all of their constituents, not just women.

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.

1955-1976
The United States experienced great social upheaval between 1955 and 1976 as marginalized groups protested inequities and challenged the government to legislate equality. 

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.”

Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman elected to Congress. Representing the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, Chisholm was known as "Fighting Shirley" for her passionate advocacy for her poor and minority constituents.

Chisholm made gender a campaign issue in her successful 1968 election. "There were Negro men in office here before I came in five years ago, but they didn't deliver."

Taking a cue from the Civil Rights movement, a women’s liberation movement began in the 1960s. The movement consisted of a series of protests and campaigns aimed at securing women full legal, economic, vocational, educational, and social rights and opportunities for women, equal to those of men.

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.

Abzug’s political aide Marilyn Marcosson recollected, “Bella was like the congresswoman for every woman in the world."

1977-Now
Women's progress entering Congress in the 1970s mirrored women’s larger efforts to break into professional fields. The majority of new congresswomen elected after 1976 proved themselves first in state legislatures. Several had held state executive office positions or been mayors of large cities. Some had federal experience ranging from US Ambassador to Cabinet Secretary. Their committee assignments expanded to include the Budget, Finance, Commerce, Foreign Relations, and Intelligence Committees. Though they had more power than any prior generation of congresswomen, the recognized their shared perspectives as women. And the Congresswomen’s Caucus convened its first meeting on April 19, 1977.

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.

Deborah Pryce was one of the few Republican women elected to the House in the Year of the Women. She rose through leadership to become the first woman ever to serve as the Republican Conference Chair, which she did in the 108th and 109th Congresses.

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.

National Women's History Museum
Credits: Story

On behalf of National Women's History Museum


Elizabeth L. Maurer - Director of Program

Jeanette Patrick - Outreach Program Manager


Related Readings:


Delli Carpini, M. X., & Williams, B. A. (1993). The Year of the Woman? Candidates, Votes and the 1992 Elections. Political Science Quarterly, 108 29-36. Retrieved from http://repository.upenn.edu/asc_papers/22


Gertzog, Irwin N. 1995. Congressional women: their recruitment, integration, and behavior. Westport, Conn. [u.a.]: Praeger.


Gertzog, Irwin N. 2004. Women and power on Capitol Hill: reconstructing the Congressional Women's Caucus. Boulder, Colo. [u.a.]: Lynne Rienner.


History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Historian, Women in Congress, 1917–2006. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2007. “Women in Congress,” http://history.house.gov/Exhibition-and-Publications/WIC/Women-in-Congress/


History, Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, “Historical Data,” http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Data/Historical-Data---Nav/


McKeon, Nancy. "Women in the House get a restroom." The Washington Post. July 28, 2011. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/women-in-the-house-get-a-restroom/2011/07/28/gIQAFgdwfI_story.html?utm_term=.3e592454bb93.


Palmer, Barbara, and Dennis Michael Simon. 2008. Breaking the political glass ceiling: women and congressional elections. New York: Routledge.


"The Year of the Woman: Women in U.S. Politics in 1992 and 2008." International Museum of Women. 2017. http://exhibitions.globalfundforwomen.org/exhibitions/women-power-and-politics/elections/year-woman.


"Women's Liberation Movement Print Culture." Duke Digital Collections. http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/wlmpc/about/.

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