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A Changing of the Guard

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


From left, Congresswoman <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=94">Martha Griffiths</a> of Michigan, journalist May Craig, House Rules Committee Chairman Howard W. Smith of Virginia, and Congresswoman <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=237">Katharine St. George</a> of New York pose for a photo shortly after the House added a sexual discrimination amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Led by Representative Griffiths, Congresswomen argued that employment laws should include both gender and race protections.From left, Congresswoman Martha Griffiths of Michigan, journalist May Craig, House Rules Committee Chairman Howard W. Smith of Virginia, and Congresswoman Katharine St. George of New York pose for a photo shortly after the House added a sexual discrimination amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Led by Representative Griffiths, Congresswomen argued that employment laws should include both gender and race protections.Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

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.1

Several trends persisted, however. As did the pioneer generation and the second generation, the third generation of women accounted for only a small fraction of the total population of Congress. At the peak of the third generation, 20 women served in the 87th Congress (1961–1963)—about 3.7 percent. The latter 1960s were the nadir for new women entering the institution; only 11 were elected or appointed to office during the entire decade. Moreover, the widow-familial succession, though less prevalent than in earlier generations, remained a primary route for women to Congress.

Yet, this group of Congresswomen began to embrace a unique legislative identity and an agenda that distinguished them from their predecessors. Representative Martha Griffiths, a central figure in the passage of gender-based civil rights legislation, vocalized this new mindset. First elected in 1954, Griffiths chafed at the deference senior Congresswomen showed to the traditions of the male-dominated institution. “The error of most women was they were trying to make the men who sat in Congress not disapprove of them,” Griffiths recalled years later. “I think they wanted to be liked, they didn’t want to make enemies. So they didn’t try to do things they thought the men would disapprove of. I didn’t give a damn whether the men approved or not.”2 More often than not, the women elected to Congress after Griffiths shared her sentiment.

New Patterns

Political Experience, Committee Assignments, and Familial Connections
<a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=7">Irene Baker</a> of Tennessee, widow of Howard Baker, Sr., poses for a ceremonial picture of her swearing-in as a U.S. Representative on March 10, 1964. Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts (left) administers the oath. Looking on is Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma.Irene Baker of Tennessee, widow of Howard Baker, Sr., poses for a ceremonial picture of her swearing-in as a U.S. Representative on March 10, 1964. Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts (left) administers the oath. Looking on is Majority Leader Carl Albert of Oklahoma.Image courtesy of the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy, University of Tennessee, Knoxvilles

Outwardly, the greatest change in women’s participation in Congress was in their racial makeup. In 1964 Hawaii Representative Patsy Mink became the first Asian-American woman and the first woman of color in Congress; all 72 Congresswomen who preceded her were white. In 1968 Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn, New York, became the first African-American woman elected to Congress. An unprecedented 17 African Americans were elected in the 93rd Congress (1973–1975), including three more women: Yvonne Burke of California, Cardiss Collins of Illinois, and Barbara Jordan of Texas. “There is no longer any need for any one to speak for all black women forever,” Burke told the Washington Post shortly before she and Jordan were elected to Congress. “I expect Shirley Chisholm is feeling relieved.”3 The first Hispanic-American woman in Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, was elected to the House nearly two decades later in 1989.

However, race and ethnicity were not the only dramatic changes in the characteristics of the women entering Congress; in the decades between 1955 and 1976, a new type of well-educated, professional candidate emerged. Women’s precongressional experiences merged reform backgrounds with specialized training, lengthy résumés and, increasingly, elective experience. Before 1955, just seven women in Congress held law degrees (the first was Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy of Kansas, elected in 1932). From 1955 through 1976, 10 of the women elected to Congress were lawyers, and several were graduates of the nation’s premier law schools. Of the 39 women who were elected or appointed to Congress during this period, 34 (87 percent) had postsecondary education.

Significantly, 14 of these women had served in state legislatures, making the third generation of women in Congress the first in which women elected with legislative experience outnumbered women who were elected as widows. For many women, service in the state legislature was an invaluable introduction to parliamentary procedure and legislative process. “I felt like a fish in just the right temperature of water, learning where the currents were and how to move with them when you wanted to get things done,” Millicent Fenwick recalled of her experience in the New Jersey assembly.4 Several women were legislative leaders: Ella Grasso of Connecticut was elected Democratic floor leader in the Connecticut house in 1955, Julia Hansen of Washington served as speaker pro tempore in the Washington house of representatives from 1955 to 1960, Florence Dwyer of New Jersey was appointed assistant majority leader of the New Jersey assembly in the 1950s, and Barbara Jordan was elected speaker pro tempore of the Texas senate in 1972. These achievements were considerable in 1969, when just 4 percent of all state legislators were women. By the end of the 1970s that figure had more than doubled to 10.3 percent.5 Women’s increased participation in state legislatures fueled their growing membership in Congress during the latter decades of the 20th century.

Other women, including Mink, Chisholm, Burke, Bella Abzug of New York, Elizabeth Holtzman of New York, and Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, gained valuable political experience as civil rights advocates or as Vietnam War dissenters. Though each had her own style of advocacy and her own public persona, these women were connected by the thread of modern feminism—assertively pursuing their agendas. Catherine Dean May of Washington, who served from 1959 to 1971 and whose legislative style was that of an earlier generation of women Members, noted the feminists’ immediate impact on Congress. “The arrival of personalities like Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug on the congressional scene shook our august body to its foundations,” May recalled. “Shirley and Bella were not what the male members of Congress had come to expect from a female colleague. They got just as demanding and as noisy and as difficult as men did!”6

A poster from one of Congresswoman <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=173">Patsy Mink&rsquo;s</a> early election campaigns. In 1964 Mink won her campaign for a U.S. House seat from Hawaii, becoming the first woman of color to serve in Congress.A poster from one of Congresswoman Patsy Mink’s early election campaigns. In 1964 Mink won her campaign for a U.S. House seat from Hawaii, becoming the first woman of color to serve in Congress.Office of History and Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives

The widow’s mandate, or familial connection, remained for women a significant route to Congress. Of the 39 women who entered Congress between 1955 and 1976, 12 directly succeeded their husbands. Charlotte Reid of Illinois replaced her late husband, GOP candidate Frank Reid, on the ballot when he died just weeks before the 1962 general election. Elaine Edwards of Louisiana was appointed by her husband, Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, to briefly fill a Senate vacancy in 1972. In all, 14 women in the third generation (36 percent) reached Congress via a familial connection. While many women served only as temporary placeholders (eight served a term or less), several, including Reid, Cardiss Collins, and Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, had long and distinguished careers. Moreover, as a group, the women in Congress during this era served an average of 4.5 House terms or 1.5 Senate terms (9 years)—longer, on average, than their predecessors from the second generation, who served 3.5 House terms, or slightly more than one Senate term.

The median age of the women elected to Congress between 1955 and 1976 rose one year, on average, to 50.1 years, despite the fact that five women were elected in their 30s (including the youngest woman ever elected to the House, Elizabeth Holtzman, at age 31 years, 7 months). The oldest woman elected to Congress during this period was 68-year-old Corrine Riley of South Carolina, who briefly succeeded her late husband to serve the remainder of his term during the 87th Congress (1961–1963). In the House, where all but two of the women elected during this period served, the average age of all new Members tended to be lower. In the late 1950s, the average age of new Members was 43 years. By the first three elections of the 1970s, the median age of all new House Members was 42.1. But even during the 1970s youth movement in the chamber, the women (at 47.9 years) still lagged behind the men by nearly 6 years. Moreover, 43 percent of the new male Representatives (93 of 216) elected in these elections were in their 20s or 30s.7 The practical result was that the men had a considerable advantage in accruing seniority at a younger age.

More explicitly than their predecessors, the women elected between 1955 and 1976 legislated regarding issues that affected women’s lives. Their feminism—their belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes–shaped their agendas. Patsy Mink, a Representative from Hawaii and one of the first modern feminists elected to Congress, discovered early in her House career that, concerning women’s issues, she was a spokesperson, or a “surrogate representative,” for all American women.8 Mink recalled that “because there were only eight women at the time who were Members of Congress . . . I had a special burden to bear to speak for [all women], because they didn’t have people who could express their concerns for them adequately. So, I always felt that we were serving a dual role in Congress, representing our own districts and, at the same time, having to voice the concerns of the total population of women in the country.”9 The Congresswomen of this era tended to perceive themselves, and women in general, as being united by common bonds and life experiences as mothers, primary caregivers, and members of a patriarchal culture.10 These experiences led to interest in legislation to redress long-standing gender-based inequities in areas like health care and reproductive issues, hiring practices and compensation in the workplace, consumer advocacy, access to education, childcare, and welfare programs for single parents.

Congresswomen thus sought committee assignments, particularly on committees that allocated federal money, that would permit them to effect these changes. An unprecedented four women served on the powerful Appropriations Committee during this period—Julia Hansen of Washington, Edith Green of Oregon, Charlotte Reid, and Yvonne Burke. Lindy Boggs and Virginia Smith of Nebraska joined the committee at the beginning of the 95th Congress (1977–1979), just after the third generation. At the behest of a group of Congresswomen, Speaker Sam Rayburn appointed Martha Griffiths to the Joint Economic Committee in 1960 and to the prestigious Ways and Means Committee in 1961; these assignments had never been held by a woman. Martha Keys of Kansas won appointment to the Ways and Means Committee as a freshman after reforms in the mid-1970s opened prominent panels to junior Members. Marjorie Holt of Maryland, Patsy Mink, and Elizabeth Holtzman served on the newly created Budget Committee in the early 1970s. Women also had a growing voice in defense decisions as Patricia Schroeder and Marjorie Holt gained seats on the influential Armed Services Committee. Holtzman and Jordan served on the Judiciary Committee after their 1972 elections, and at the beginning of the 95th Congress, Shirley Chisholm became the first Democratic woman to sit on the Rules Committee. The most common committee assignments for women were Education and Labor and Government Operations, followed by Interior and Insular Affairs, Banking and Currency, District of Columbia, Public Works, Post Office and Civil Service, and Veterans’ Affairs.

Congresswomen of the 89th Congress(1965&ndash;1967):(standing, from left) <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=64">Florence Dwyer</a> of New Jersey, <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=94">Martha Griffiths</a> of Michigan, <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=92">Edith Green</a> of Oregon, <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=173">Patsy Mink</a> of Hawaii, <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=240">Leonor Sullivan</a> of Missouri, <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=98">Julia Hansen</a> of Washington, <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=157">Catherine May</a> of Washington, <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=127">Edna Kelly</a> of New York, and <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=204">Charlotte Reid</a> of Illinois(seated, from left) <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=183">Maurine Neuberger</a> of Oregon, <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=17">Frances Bolton</a> of Ohio, and <a href="/member-profiles/profile.html?intID=230">Margaret Chase Smith</a> of Maine.Congresswomen of the 89th Congress(1965–1967):(standing, from left) Florence Dwyer of New Jersey, Martha Griffiths of Michigan, Edith Green of Oregon, Patsy Mink of Hawaii, Leonor Sullivan of Missouri, Julia Hansen of Washington, Catherine May of Washington, Edna Kelly of New York, and Charlotte Reid of Illinois(seated, from left) Maurine Neuberger of Oregon, Frances Bolton of Ohio, and Margaret Chase Smith of Maine.Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Women also made advances in leadership in caucuses and committees. Most notably, a woman was Secretary for the Democratic Caucus—then the party’s fifth-ranking position—for most of the period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.11 Edna Kelly served as Caucus Secretary in the 83rd (1953–1955), 84th (1955–1957), and 88th (1963–1965) Congresses. Leonor Sullivan of Missouri held the post in the 86th and 87th Congresses (1959–1963) and in the 89th through the 93rd Congresses (1965–1975). Patsy Mink succeeded Sullivan in the 94th Congress (1975–1977). In the Senate, Margaret Chase Smith chaired the Republican Conference from the 90th through the 92nd Congresses (1967–1973); she was the highest-ranking woman in the party leadership in that chamber. While Leonor Sullivan was the only woman to chair a full committee during this period (Merchant Marine and Fisheries in the 93rd and 94th Congresses, from 1973 to 1977), a total of 10 women chaired 13 congressional subcommittees from 1955 to 1976. Julia Hansen quickly advanced to chair the Interior and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the powerful Appropriations Committee, becoming the first woman to serve in that capacity. Other women who chaired subcommittees included Gracie Pfost of Idaho, who headed the Public Lands Subcommittee of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, and Katherine Granahan of Pennsylvania, who chaired the Postal Operations Subcommittee of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee. Sullivan chaired the Merchant Marine and Fisheries’ Panama Canal Subcommittee and the Consumer Affairs Subcommittee of the Banking and Currency Committee. Maude Kee of West Virginia led three panels on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee: Education and Training, Administration, and Hospitals.12


  1. For further reading, see Jo Freeman’s A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.): 227–235.
  2. Elizabeth Kastor, “A Woman’s Place; The 1950s Were Not Easy for Females in Congress,” 17 November 1996, Washington Post: F01.
  3. Leroy F. Aarons, “Legislator With a Subtle Touch,” 22 October 1972, Washington Post: K1.
  4. Louise Sweeney, “Congress’s Millicent Fenwick: A Blueblood With a Social Conscience,” 25 June 1975, Christian Science Monitor: 17.
  5. Center for American Women and Politics (Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ), “Women in State Legislatures, 2003,” http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/Facts/StLegHistory/stleghist.pdf (accessed 30 March 2005).
  6. Catherine Dean May, Oral History Interview, 1 March 1979, 9 March 1979 and 20 April 1979, U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (hereinafter cited as USAFMOC), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.: 148–149.
  7. For the 1955–1960 period, see Allan G. Bogue, Jerome M. Clubb, Carroll R. McKibbin, and Santa A. Traugott, “Members of the House of Representatives and the Processes of Modernization, 1789–1960,” Journal of American History 63 (September 1976): 275–302. For the 1970, 1972, and 1974 election, figures were compiled using birth dates from the Congressional Directory. Two hundred thirty-three individuals were elected to the House in the 92nd, 93rd, and 94th Congresses; 17 were women. Eighty-two men were elected in their 30s, and 11 men were elected in their 20s.
  8. 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.
  9. Patsy T. Mink, Oral History Interview, 6 March 1979, 26 March 1979, and 7 June 1979, USAFMOC, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.: 43.
  10. Susan J. Carroll, “Representing Women: Congresswomen’s Perceptions of Their Representational Roles,” paper delivered at the 13–15 April 2000, conference on “Women Transforming Congress,” Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center, University of Oklahoma, Norman.
  11. Mildred Amer, “Major Leadership Election Contests in the House of Representatives, 94th–108th Congresses,” 3 September 2003, Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Amer, “Women in the United States Congress, 1917–2004,” 1 July 2004, CRS Report for Congress, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
  12. For lists of women committee chairs and subcommittee chairs and a list of women elected to leadership positions, see Appendices E, F, and G.