Assembling, Amplifying, and Ascending: Recent Trends Among Women in Congress, 1977-2006

(From left) Representatives Lindy Boggs, Patricia Schroeder, Barbara Mikulski, and Millicent Fenwick meet in the Congresswomen's Suite in the Capitol/tiles/non-collection/w/wic_cont4_1_boggs_room_1980_cap_his_soc2.xml Image courtesy of the United States Capitol Historical Society (From left) Representatives Lindy Boggs of Lousiana,  Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, and Millicent Fenwick of New Jersey, meet in the Congresswomen’s Suite in the Capitol—now known as the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Reading Room.
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.

Despite such achievements, women in Congress historically account for a only a small fraction—about 2 percent—of the approximately 12,000 individuals who have served in the U.S. Congress since 1789, although recent trends suggest that the presence of women in Congress will continue to increase. Based on gains principally in the House of Representatives, each of the 13 Congresses since 1981 has had a record number of women Members.

A defining moment of change was the general election of 1992 dubbed the “Year of the Woman.” The arrival of 28 new women in Congress resulted from the confluence of historic circumstances that have not recurred since. Yet, the doubling of the number of women in Congress virtually overnight had far-reaching effects on the way women were perceived in the institution. Elected to the House in 1992, Lynn Schenk of San Diego, aptly summarized the changes. “After years in the trenches, more women are finally moving up to the front lines.”1The elections of 1992 inaugurated a decade of gains for women in Congress—in regard to their number and their seniority. These gains were capped by the election of Representative Nancy Pelosi as House Democratic Leader in 2002. It was the first time a woman held the top post in a major U.S. political party.

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1Barry M. Horstman, “Women Poised to Make Big Political Gains,” 24 August 1992. Los Angeles Times.