After gaining experience in state legislatures and on the campaign trail, women Members were well positioned to improve their standing in Congress. Their growing electoral success created opportunities for women to have a more prominent role on significant congressional committees that bolstered their ability to participate on a given policy.42
Unlike the Congresswomen of previous eras, Congresswomen of this period had access to virtually all committees in both chambers, including the elite panels. Twenty-two women who entered the House from 1977 to 2016 served on the Appropriations Committee, 40 served on the Armed Services Committee, 13 women won seats on the Ways and Means Committee, and 14 were assigned to the Rules Committee. The most common committee assignments in the House reflected women’s changing roles in American society in the latter part of the 20th century, particularly the trend of more women entering the workforce. More than 60 women served on committees with jurisdiction over finance and business: the Budget Committee, the Financial Services Committee (formerly Banking and Financial Services), and the Small Business Committee. Barbara Mikulski became the first woman to gain a seat on the influential Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee (later Energy and Commerce) in 1977, and more than 20 women followed her. The Public Works and Transportation Committee (later named Transportation and Infrastructure), long a vehicle for Representatives seeking federal funding for local projects, was the most popular committee assignment for women in this era; nearly 50 women served on the panel.
Although women in the House continued to serve on committees such as Veterans’ Affairs and Education and the Workforce (formerly Education and Labor), women were no longer confined to these panels and welcomed the opportunity to pursue seats on a diverse array of committees. Moreover, while women still accounted for only a small number of the total membership of any given committee, their representation on some key committees roughly equaled and, in some instances, exceeded their percentages in the chamber by the 114th Congress (2015–2017).43
Women’s ability to secure better committee posts was most dramatic in the Senate, where the number of women serving simultaneously in the chamber increased from two to 20 between 1981 and 2016. There were a number of “firsts.” Most notably, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas served on four committees to which women previously had not been assigned: Budget (1979), Foreign Relations (1977), Environment and Public Works (1977), and Select Intelligence (1979). In 1977 Maryon Allen of Alabama, a widow who served a brief portion of her late husband’s term, was the first woman assigned to the influential Senate Judiciary Committee. The first women to serve a full term on that panel were Dianne Feinstein of California and Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois. Moseley-Braun was also the first woman to serve on the powerful Senate Finance Committee (1993). As recently as 1997, Patty Murray of Washington became the first woman to serve on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee; by comparison, the House Veterans’ Affairs committee had for decades been a popular assignment for women Representatives. As in the House, the most common committee assignments for women in the Senate—Armed Services; Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Commerce; Budget; Appropriations; Energy and Natural Resources; Foreign Relations; and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions—reflected American women’s expanded participation in the workplace, in the military, and in the formulation of foreign policy.
42Rosenthal, Women Transforming Congress: 325.
43For instance, by the 114th Congress (2015–2017), 10 women served on the Appropriations Committee (19.6 percent of its membership), and 11 women held seats on the Energy and Commerce Committee (20.8 percent). The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, also changed the way Congress did business. A Select Committee on Homeland Security was created in the 108th Congress and was later made permanent in the 109th Congress. By the 114th Congress, this panel had seven women Members (24 percent).