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I’m No Lady; I’m a Member of Congress

Women Pioneers on Capitol Hill, 1917–1934

Great triumphs and historic firsts highlight women’s initial foray into national political office. Four years after Jeannette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916, women won the right to vote nationally, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Rebecca Felton of Georgia became the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1922. That same year, Alice Robertson of Oklahoma became the first woman to preside over the House of Representatives. In 1923, Representative Mae Ella Nolan of California became the first woman to chair a congressional committee. Two other women followed her lead, including Mary Norton of New Jersey, the first woman elected from the East Coast, who would chair four House committees during her quarter-century career. In 1932, Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the Senate. Several other women attained prominent committee positions, including Representative Florence Prag Kahn of California, the first woman to serve on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

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Onto the National Stage

Congresswomen in an Age of Crises, 1935–1954

Thirty-six women entered Congress between 1935 and 1954, a tumultuous two decades that encompassed the Great Depression, World War II, and the start of the Cold War. Women participated in America’s survival, recovery, and ascent to world power in important and unprecedented ways; they became shapers of the welfare state, workers during wartime, and members of the military. During this time the nation’s capital took on increasing importance in the everyday lives of average Americans. The Great Depression and the specter of global war transformed the role of the federal government, making it a provider and protector. Like their male counterparts, women in Congress legislated to provide economic relief to their constituents, debated the merits of government intervention to cure the economy, argued about America’s role in world affairs, and grappled with challenges and opportunities during wartime.

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A Changing of the Guard

Traditionalists, Feminists, and the New Face of Women in Congress, 1955–1976

The third generation of women in Congress, the 39 individuals who entered the House and the Senate between 1955 and 1976, legislated during an era of upheaval in America. Overlapping social and political movements during this period—the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the groundswell of protest against American intervention in the Vietnam War in the mid- to late 1960s, the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and the Watergate Scandal and efforts to reform Congress in the 1970s—provided experience and impetus for a new group of feminist reformers. Within a decade, an older generation of women Members, most of whom believed they could best excel in a man’s world by conforming to male expectations, was supplanted by a younger group who challenged narrowly prescribed social roles and long-standing congressional practices.

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Assembling, Amplifying, and Ascending

Recent Trends Among Women in Congress, 1977–2006

The fourth wave of women to enter Congress–from 1977 to 2006– was by far the largest and most diverse group. These 134 women accounted for more than half (58 percent) of all the women who have served in the history of Congress. In the House, the women formed a Congresswomen’s Caucus (later called the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues), to publicize legislative initiatives that were important to women. By honing their message and by cultivating political action groups to support female candidates, women became more powerful. Most important, as the numbers of Congresswomen increased and their legislative interests expanded, women accrued the seniority and influence to advance into the ranks of leadership.

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