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Women in Congress: An Introduction


<a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=202">Jeannette Rankin</a> of Montana, a suffragist and peace activist, and the first woman to serve in Congress, delivers her first full speech on the House Floor on August 7, 1917. Rankin addressed the need for federal intervention in copper mining during a period of unrest between labor unions and mining companies.Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a suffragist and peace activist, and the first woman to serve in Congress, delivers her first full speech on the House Floor on August 7, 1917. Rankin addressed the need for federal intervention in copper mining during a period of unrest between labor unions and mining companies.Image Courtesy of the Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration

Like all history, the story of women in Congress is defined by change over time: From a complete lack of representation in Congress before 1917, women have advanced to party leadership at the start of the 21st century. At times during the near century that women have served in Congress, change has been almost imperceptible, as exemplified by the subtle shift in women’s committee assignments after World War II. At other times, change has been bold and dramatic, as evidenced by the 1992 “Year of the Woman” elections. Several questions, important not only to women’s history in Congress but also to the development of Congress itself, have recurred throughout the process of researching and writing these profiles of U.S. Congresswomen. How have women Members of Congress reacted to the political culture and traditions of Capitol Hill? Have women changed the way Congress conducts its business, or have they modified their behavior to conform with the institution? Have the experiences of the women Senators differed from those of women Representatives and, if so, what might account for these differences? What kinds of experiences do Congresswomen have in common, despite the differences in their legislative styles and political ideologies?

Legislative Styles

For decades, observers of Congress have studied the influence of the “insider” and “outsider” legislative roles.1 The insider influences colleagues by earning their trust and respect through one-on-one contact and personal persuasion by being accessible, performing favors, and ceaselessly networking. The outsider route accrues power by appealing to external sources like the media and public opinion and most often favors “a more ideological, issue oriented” approach than that of the insider.2 Many women Members have followed one of two approaches: 1) assimilating into the institution and minimizing gender differences by de-emphasizing “women’s issues” or 2) stressing their role as partisan spokespersons or advocates for feminism and “women’s issues.” The latter style often involved “surrogate” representation, meaning a Congresswoman spoke for a cross section of American women beyond the borders of her district or state.3 These contrasting legislative styles have contributed to a constant tension among women Members about the best way to promote women’s political participation.

This Web site chronicles four successive generations of Congresswomen whose legislative role evolved over time, because of changed perceptions about gender roles and because of the new opportunities that resulted. The first two generations of women in Congress (1917–1934 and 1935–1954) tried to integrate themselves as knowledgeable, “professional” insiders.4 Chiefly, they aimed to fit as seamlessly as possible into the institution. Mary T. Norton of New Jersey, Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, and Frances Bolton of Ohio practiced this approach, achieving considerable success as respected and, at times, influential insiders. Even during these first generations, however, there were exceptions to the rule, particularly in the careers of Clare Boothe Luce of Connecticut and Helen Gahagan Douglas of California. Both Luce and Douglas used the celebrity they had achieved before they came to Congress to act as national spokeswomen for their respective parties and legislative interests: Luce was a critic of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration’s policies during wartime, and Douglas was an advocate for postwar liberal causes like civil rights.

By the third generation of women in Congress (1955–1976), the trend for Congresswomen to work inside the institution was still prevalent. Among the more successful Congresswomen in this regard were Julia Hansen of Washington, who became the first woman to chair an Appropriations subcommittee and headed an influential internal reforms committee in the 1970s, and Leonor Sullivan of Missouri, a widow who succeeded her late husband, became the dean of House women, a committee chair, and a leading opponent of efforts to create a Congresswomen’s caucus.

Yet, changes were afoot because of an influx of Congresswomen who pushed an increasingly feminist agenda. Martha Griffiths of Michigan, first elected in 1954, was a transitional figure. Griffiths was one of the first truly career-oriented Congresswomen, having been a state legislator and judge in Michigan before she was elected to the House. A forceful advocate for the causes she championed, particularly the sexual discrimination clause in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972, Griffiths attracted media publicity for these issues. Griffiths was also the first woman to secure a seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee.

Later Congresswomen in the third generation and fourth generation (1977 to present) for example, Bella Abzug of New York, Shirley Chisholm of New York, and Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, firmly embraced a style of advocacy that tended more toward the outsider approach. Serving as partisan advocates for women and for special causes like reproductive rights, antiwar and arms reduction agendas, and government transparency, these Members often took their cases to the court of public opinion rather than working to shape legislation behind the scenes. Though successful at publicizing key issues, the outsider approach had its drawbacks. For many women Members, it complicated the process of crafting legislation and moving it through to completion by undermining their ability to rally colleagues to their cause through more subtle tactics. An illustrative example is that of Helen Douglas, who had little patience for adapting to the institutional traditions on Capitol Hill and even less of an inclination to master legislative processes. “Helen could not have gotten a bill passed making December 25th a holiday,” recalled Ed Lybeck, her campaign manager. But, Lybeck noted, because Congresswoman Douglas used her celebrity to bring public attention to key liberal issues, “she was a light in the window for liberals at a time when things were very dark.”5

<a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=202">Jeannette Rankin</a> (right) on April 2, 1917, with Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, at the group&rsquo;s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Later that historic day, Rankin was officially sworn into the 65th Congress.Jeannette Rankin (right) on April 2, 1917, with Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, at the group’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Later that historic day, Rankin was officially sworn into the 65th Congress.Image Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society, Helena

Time will tell how women in the fourth generation and subsequent generations respond to these legislative roles, but their increasing numbers, their ability to drive a legislative agenda via their successful caucus, and their increased power on committees and in leadership positions suggest that women Members are in a better position than ever to navigate an “insider” route to influence. Their choice to pursue an insider or outsider strategy, however, will be affected by their legislative agendas as much as by their personal styles. An insider strategy, for example, is often the most effective for routine legislative issues, such as modifying the tax code or securing appropriations for a district project, whereas an outsider strategy that mobilizes the media, interest groups, and public opinion is often preferable when a Member seeks to introduce a new idea or an issue that is strongly resisted in Congress.

What the insider–outsider divide also suggests, if tangentially, is that for most of the history of women in Congress, women Members have not had a single-track legislative agenda. In fact, for most of the time they have been in Congress, women have purposefully eschewed (or been unable to sustain) a narrow focus on women’s issues. The ability to publicize and legislate on women’s issues was a relatively late (third generation) development—signaled by the creation of the Women’s Caucus in 1977—and it met with considerable resistance even among women Members. The success of the Women’s Caucus as a bipartisan mechanism for pushing health, education, and economic legislation important to women occurred at a time when women Members had attained committee assignments across a spectrum of jurisdictions and legislative interests. Thus, along with their new ability to promote legislation important to American women, female Members of Congress also had unprecedented ability to legislate on virtually every facet of American life, including international relations, military affairs, commerce and industry, technology, and education.

Political scientists have often sought to determine the effects on Congress of legislative norms, the unwritten but widely accepted rules according to which Members conduct business. Which informal “folkways,” such as apprenticeship and issue specialization, existed? How did Members who resisted these traditions fare in relation to those who accepted them? Did these norms change over time, especially during the influx of new membership, as with the “Watergate Babies” in 1975 or the “Republican Revolutionaries” in 1995? And, more generally, has the institution of Congress been changed by individuals, or has individuals’ integration into the institution changed them?6 These questions are open to considerable debate.

Most early women in Congress clearly and purposefully adapted to the institution. Many latter women Members chose instead to challenge institutional norms or to embrace their role as surrogate advocates for all women. Between Jeannette Rankin’s election in 1916 and the “Year of the Woman” in 1992, a revolution occurred in terms of Congresswomen’s collective work, educational experience, political status, economic clout, and independence from traditional familial roles. Experience engendered confidence. Millicent Fenwick of New Jersey described her initial foray into politics as following “the typical female pattern. I always wanted things in the most foolish, overmodest, hesitant way.” Her work as a state legislator and official changed her approach. “I finally learned that when a man wants more he says, ‘Listen, George, I want a bit of the action,’” Fenwick observed. “Well, [women have] been taught: ‘You have to wait to be invited to dance.’”7 Women’s attainment of rough equality with male colleagues in these areas enabled them to adapt to and navigate the institution of Congress. In this sense, it is impossible to separate the history of women in Congress from larger social and historical movements that shaped the course of U.S. history.

Irwin Gertzog has noted the development of three distinct legislative roles of women in Congress. Gertzog characterizes the “gentlewoman amateur” in the period roughly between 1917 and World War II as a woman whose route to political office depended more on her matrimonial connections than on her political savvy or qualifications. Early southern widows best exemplified this role. The “neutral professional” in the 1940s and 1950s had some precongressional political experience and a measure of legislative success but purposefully avoided women’s issues. This legislative role was exemplified by Representatives Norton, Chase Woodhouse of Connecticut, Cecil Harden of Indiana, and Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who later became a Senator. The modern “feminist colleague,” from the 1960s onward, insisted on equality with male colleagues, gained important committee assignments and leadership roles, and developed an agenda on women’s issues. Women like Representatives Griffiths and Patsy Mink of Hawaii, and other House Members who eventually moved on to the Senate, such as Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Barbara Boxer of California, possessed these traits.8

These patterns are readily apparent among the generations of women Members. For the pioneer generation of Congresswomen, who came into office between 1917 and 1934, a marital or other familial connection was the most common route to political office. A large percentage of them were widows who succeeded their late husbands, and most lacked experience in elective office. Only one, Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy of Kansas, had experience as a state legislator. McCarthy was also the only first-generation woman in Congress who was trained as a lawyer. Women Members of the 1920s were viewed as a curiosity by their male colleagues and the national press, which devoted considerable attention to their arrival in Washington. Most Congresswomen, however, were never really given the chance to integrate into the institution. Unable to serve on powerful committees, they were relegated to panels tending to the routine upkeep of federal agencies or of Congress itself. Most women served on committees with oversight of issues considered as belonging to the women’s sphere, such as education, nursing, and veterans’ affairs. However, there were notable exceptions, such as Florence Kahn of California, who served on the Appropriations Committee; Mary Norton, who served on the Labor Committee; and Ruth Hanna McCormick, who served on the Naval Affairs Committee.

The second generation of women in Congress—elected from 1935 through 1954—served a long institutional apprenticeship. Once the initial interest in their participation in Congress subsided, women Members slowly made inroads. More of them had precongressional careers and experience in elective office, qualifying them for better committee assignments and more areas of legislative expertise. Powerful male colleagues offered a measure of support, particularly Speakers Sam Rayburn of Texas and Joe Martin of Massachusetts, who promoted women to key committee assignments. For the first time, women were assigned to prominent committees, such as Agriculture, Judiciary, and Armed Services in the House. In the Senate, Margaret Chase Smith won a position on the influential Armed Services Committee. Under the tutelage of senior Congresswomen, the second generation preferred to integrate into the institution and work its way up through the ranks by gaining seniority. Some were selected to leadership positions in the official organizations of Democrats and Republicans in both chambers; Representative Leonor Sullivan served as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus in the 1950s and 1960s, and Margaret Chase Smith chaired the Senate Republican Conference from 1967 to 1973.

<a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=74">Rebecca Latimer Felton</a> of Georgia (seated) is greeted by prominent political women in Washington, D.C. Felton, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, was appointed for a day in November 1922.Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia (seated) is greeted by prominent political women in Washington, D.C. Felton, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, was appointed for a day in November 1922.Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The third generation in Congress, first elected between 1955 and 1976, proved to be an important transition. Although the number of women in Congress had not significantly increased, women had achieved a modest share of influence both in terms of appointments to powerful committees, such as Ways and Means and Appropriations in the House, and in terms of initial strides toward breaking into leadership. More important, the years from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s marked a major sexual revolution in American society, as women demanded economic, political, and social equality with men. A new wave of feminists in Congress sought economic and constitutional equality through such legislative undertakings as the sex clause in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Rights Amendment. These efforts were supported by women in Congress with near unanimity. For the first time in half a century, the number of women Members who came to Congress with experience in elective office exceeded the number who came to Congress by way of a marital or familial connection.

The fourth generation of women in Congress—those elected after 1977—enjoyed unprecedented growth and influence. More than half the women who have served in Congress were elected during this period. Women Members organized a special caucus solely devoted to developing legislation on women’s issues and to educating the public and Congress about them. The numbers of women in Congress soared, essentially doubling in the 1992 elections, and continued to climb steadily into the early 21st century. In January 1977, 18 women served in the House; none served in the Senate. Early in the 110th Congress in 2007, there were 74 women serving in the House and 16 serving in the Senate. As the numbers of women Members increased, they became able to attain assignments on more-influential committees. Especially in the House, where incumbents have a long-standing advantage in re-election campaigns, women Members who were elected and decided to stay were better able to acquire more seniority and to chair or become Ranking Members on more committees and, particularly, subcommittees.

They also began a rapid ascent into the ranks of congressional leadership in both parties and in both chambers.

Congresswomen’s experiences have varied, depending on the peculiarities of the chamber in which they served.9 In addition to differences in membership and parliamentary procedure, opportunities to serve on committees, election requirements, and the availability of mentors and leadership patrons have affected women’s congressional careers. The size of the House (435 Members) meant there were more (and larger) committees women could choose from to develop legislative expertise. In the Senate, the 100 Members had more committee assignments than their House counterparts, so women were more likely to receive at least one prominent assignment. This was true of the four women between 1930 and 1980 who served more than an abbreviated term (Hattie Caraway of Arkansas, on Commerce; Margaret Chase Smith, on Armed Services and Appropriations; Maurine Neuberger of Oregon, on Agriculture; and Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas, on Foreign Relations). Compared with their House colleagues, however, Senators tend to be generalists, rather than specialists.10

Moreover, the constitutional requirement that House Members be elected has benefited women by providing more opportunities. Particularly in the case of sudden deaths of sitting Representatives, special elections have proven disruptive because (depending on state law) they must occur on relatively short notice. Local party leaders have sometimes chosen widows because of their experience as political advisers to or surrogates for their husbands. Just as often, party leaders have nominated widows because their names made them electable and because their choice forestalled or prevented intraparty skirmishes. Conversely, interim Senators may be appointed by state governors, offering in many cases an opportunity for party continuity and a longer window before the election of a successor to a full, six-year term. Thus, in the Senate, choosing a widow was less desirable, except as a means of postponing a choice between competing factions (as with Dixie Bibb Graves of Alabama) or of boosting a governor’s political fortunes with a bloc of voters (as with Rebecca Felton of Georgia). A number of early women Senators were appointees, but women in the House, including many who served long terms, clearly benefited more from special elections.

Finally, women in the House had more female predecessors and colleagues and, consequently, more mentors. Before 1992, 116 women had served in House history and only 18 had served in Senate history (11 of the latter served just long enough to finish the remainder of their predecessors’ term). As recently as the first session of the 95th Congress (1977), there were no women serving in the Senate; women in the Senate were a novelty until the 1990s. For much of the 20th century, only one or two women served simultaneously in the upper chamber—islands in a sea of male colleagues. There was virtually no female support. By contrast, from 1951 on, a minimum of 10 women served in the House—enough to provide, if not an issues caucus, then at least a network for advice and a forum for exchange and camaraderie. Moreover, long-serving deans in this group, among them Mary Norton, Frances Bolton, and Leonor Sullivan, tried to set an example for the junior Members. In addition, key leadership figures in both parties in the House displayed on a number of occasions a willingness to promote women to middle and, at times, top-tier committee posts.


  1. See, for example, Nelson W. Polsby’s article “Two Strategies of Influence: Choosing a Majority Leader, 1962,” reprinted in Robert L. Peabody and Nelson W. Polsby, eds., New Perspectives on the House of Representatives, 4th edition (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992): 260–290.
  2. Peabody and Polsby, New Perspectives on the House of Representatives: 282.
  3. See, for example, Jane Mansbridge, “The Many Faces of Representation,” Working Paper, 1998, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; and Jane Mansbridge, “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes,’” Journal of Politics 61 (1999): 628–657.
  4. Irwin Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior, 2nd edition (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 254–257.
  5. Ingrid Winther Scobie, Center Stage: Helen Gahagan Douglas—A Life (New York: Oxford, 1992): xv–xvi. See also Richard Fenno, Home Style: House Members in Their Districts (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978). Elsewhere Fenno has written, “Dramatic analogies are appropriate to politics because politicians, like actors, perform before audiences and are legitimized by their audiences”; see his “U.S. House Members and Their Constituencies: An Exploration,” American Political Science Review 71, part 2 (September 1977): 898. See also Ralph Huitt and Robert L. Peabody, Congress: Two Decades of Analysis (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1969): 170.
  6. For studies that have addressed aspects of the question of institutional versus individual change, see Donald R. Matthews’s, U.S. Senators and Their World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960), especially the chapter “Folkways of the U.S. Senate.” See also Morris Fiorina, Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment, 2nd edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989) and Ross K. Baker, House and Senate, 3rd edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001). On the issue of changing norms and traditions, see Herbert F. Weisberg, Eric S. Heberlig, and Lisa M. Campoli, Classics in Congressional Politics (New York: Longman, 1999): especially 192–200; and Glenn R. Parker, Studies of Congress (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1985): 75–80.
  7. Judy Bacharach, “Millicent Fenwick,” 23 February 1975,Washington Post: 137.
  8. Gertzog, Congressional Women: 243–264, especially 251.
  9. For a standard reference source on the differences between the structure and operations of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, see the aforementioned study by Baker, House and Senate.
  10. Baker, House and Senate: 55, 68–70.