New Patterns: Familial Connections and Political Experience 

Since 1977, the number of women elected to Congress via a familial connection, particularly widows of Congressmen, while still statistically significant, was far smaller. Of the 218 women who came to Congress during this period, just 12 (5.5 percent) were widows who succeeded their late husbands. Three women succeeded their fathers: Representatives Susan Molinari of New York and Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. In 2014, when Congressman John Dingell of Michigan retired from the House, his wife, Debbie Dingell, became the first woman directly elected to represent her living husband’s former district.5

Susan Molinari Lapel Pin/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay4_2_MolinariPin_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
“A New Generation” was not just a slogan for Susan Molinari of New York. She hailed from a political family that played a role in Staten Island politics for nearly 50 years.
The elections of Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri, Lois Capps of California, and Mary Bono of California, each succeeding her late husband, to the House between January 1997 and April 1998 were portrayed by the national media as a testament to the power of the marital connection. But an important factor distinguished this trio and the modern congressional widows: their professional and political résumés were more evolved than those of their predecessors. Earlier widows in Congress, such as Mae Ella Nolan of California, Katharine Byron of Maryland, and Irene Baker of Tennessee, were to various degrees involved in their husbands’ political careers. But the widows of the late 20th century had their own careers that distinguished them from the legacies of their husbands. Whereas earlier widows, even if they were politically savvy, tended to run for office to complete their husbands’ legislative agendas—in effect, to honor their husbands’ memories—later widows were more likely to pursue interests related to careers they established before coming to Congress. For example, in 1998 Lois Capps succeeded her late husband, Walter, a theology professor-turned-politician. Having worked as a nurse and medical administrator for decades, Capps eschewed her husband’s focus on religious issues and became an advocate for health care professionals and reform within the industry. In March 2005 Doris Matsui of California won a special election to succeed her late husband, Robert, head of the Democratic Party’s congressional campaign committee, after years as a White House staffer in the William J. Clinton administration.

Since many present-day congressional marriages unite partners with impressive political résumés, the influence of the widow’s or perhaps a future widower’s mandate will probably persist.6 But while personal tragedy and matrimonial connections will undoubtedly continue to bring women into Congress, candidates are more likely to be judged on prior political experience and professional accomplishments rather than familial ties.

A matrimonial role reversal occurred in the U.S. Senate early in the new millennium. In the 1990s, President William (Bill) Clinton of Arkansas and Senator Robert (Bob) Dole of Kansas emerged as party leaders and faced off against each other in the 1996 presidential election. By 2001, both had retired from politics. Their departures marked moments of arrival for their wives, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who had subordinated their own political aspirations to further their husbands’ careers. In November 2000, Hillary Clinton won election as New York’s first woman Senator and became the first former First Lady to hold political office. Elizabeth Dole, who had served as Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Labor, contended for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000 and was elected to the Senate two years later, becoming the first woman to represent North Carolina in the Senate. While their husbands were guests on political talk shows on network television, Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Dole debated policies on the Senate Floor as spokespersons for their respective parties.

While the importance of the widow’s mandate waned, the number of women elected to Congress with federal, state, and local electoral experiences surged. One hundred and ten women elected since 1976 (50 percent) had served in state legislatures; 15 had held state executive office positions, including lieutenant governor, treasurer, and secretary of state; 10 had held federal positions ranging from U.S. ambassador to cabinet secretary, to head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and several had been mayors of large cities. In all, nearly 62 percent had held elective or appointed offices at the state or federal levels.7

The Congresswoman’s Caucus/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay4_4_WomansCaucus_HousePhotography.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office Featured in 1979, this founding generation of the Congresswoman’s Caucus sought to organize and concentrate the efforts of female legislators. Shown from left to right, are (front row) Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, Shirley Chisholm of New York, Elizabeth Holtzman of New York, Margaret Heckler of Massachusetts, Pat Schroeder of Colorado; and (back row) Olympia Snowe of Maine, Gladys Spellman of Maryland, Geraldine Ferraro of New York, and Shirley Pettis of California.
The demographic characteristics of this group of women in Congress were generally in line with earlier generations and trends in U.S. society. Their educational levels, which had always been higher than average, exceeded those of earlier Congresswomen and paralleled the rising educational attainment among the general population. The vast majority of Members earned four-year degrees, and many held graduate degrees. In addition, the average age at which women were first elected or appointed to Congress between 1977 and 2016 was 49.9 years, nearly identical to the third generation of women in Congress (1955–1976). This figure also roughly tracked all Members of Congress in this period.9 The age disparities with male congressional colleagues at the time of first election, once noticeable in previous generations when women who were widows or started careers later in life and thus were older than the typical freshman Member, had largely been closed by this final generation in which so many women started professional careers early in life. The youngest woman elected to Congress in this period was Elise Stefanik of New York in 2014; at age 30 years, 4 months, she surpassed Elizabeth Holtzman of New York as the youngest woman ever to serve on Capitol Hill. The oldest woman to enter Congress during this period was 71-year-old Gloria Negrete McLeod of California, who was elected for one term in the 113th Congress (2013–2015).

Connie Morella/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay4_5_Morella_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Connie Morella of Maryland came to Congress in 1987 with experience in the state legislature and soon specialized in areas such as federal pay, parental leave, and health care benefits for the civil service.
A significant number of the women Members had young children and thus were required to balance their careers with their family lives. The structure of the modern congressional workweek, the necessity of regular trips to the district, and increasing demands on Members’ time strained family lives. As in American society generally, divorces became more prevalent in Congress during the third and fourth generations of women in Congress. Members with children had to choose between moving their families to Washington, D.C., and returning to their districts occasionally for official business or leaving their families behind in their districts and traveling to the Capitol when Congress was in session. In either scenario, Members would be separated from their families frequently.

Women with children often faced questions about the impact of congressional service on their families. Representative Constance Morella of Maryland recalled that, when running for office, she was routinely asked, “How can you do that with a family?”10 Representative Lynn Martin of Illinois became an influential House Member in the 1980s with a seat on the powerful Rules Committee and an elective position in the GOP leadership. But family concerns competed with political responsibilities and posed unique challenges. “The first time I was in Ronald Reagan’s office, I called Caroline, my 9-year-old, and I said, ‘I have just been in with President Ronald Reagan,’” Martin recalled. Her daughter replied, “‘Are you going to be here tomorrow for the carpool?’” “And I said, ‘I have just been . . .’ and she said, ‘I heard you. Are you going to be here tomorrow for the carpool?’ I mean, oh my Lord: ‘I’m deciding the fate of the Western World and you’re worrying about a carpool?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes, I am.’”11

Nancy Johnson and Lynn Martin/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay4_6_NJohnson_HousePhotography.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office Nancy Johnson of Connecticut and Lynn Martin of Illinois both came to the U.S. House of Representatives as former state legislators and as parents of young children. Both commented publicly on the challenges of childrearing while in elective office.
Some Congresswomen chose not to raise families in order to devote themselves to the rigorous demands of public office. “I think one of the reasons I’ve never married and had children is because of the guilt I would feel taking time from them,” Marcy Kaptur of Ohio said in 1992. “To raise children in this job? You can count on one hand the number of women in this job who have.” Congresswoman Nancy Johnson of Connecticut took this into account as she began her long career in the House. Knowing she would be away several days every week, Johnson structured her weekends to make time to be with her children.13

The increasing number of mothers in Congress was a trend that paralleled the experiences of women beyond Capitol Hill. By 1998, more than 20 percent of women Members had children under the age of 18.14 They were working mothers trying to deal with issues such as childcare and striking the right balance between work and family lives, and they brought these everyday concerns to the legislative branch. After Representative Yvonne Burke of California gave birth while in office in 1973, it became more common for women to have children while serving. Since 1995, nine Congresswomen have had children while in office.

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Footnotes

5In the late 1920s, Katherine Langley of Kentucky had been elected to her husband’s former district a year after he had left office. See “Katherine Gudger Langley,” http://history.house.gov/People/Detail/16680?ret=True.

6At least two husbands have attempted to directly succeed their wives in the House. In 1980, Gladys Noon Spellman of Maryland suffered a heart attack and lapsed into a coma from which she never recovered. When the House declared her seat vacant in early 1981, her husband, Reuben Spellman, entered the April 1981 Democratic primary but lost. After Patsy Mink of Hawaii died in September 2002, her husband, John Francis Mink, was one of more than 30 candidates in a special election to fill her seat for the remainder of the 107th Congress. He, too, was unsuccessful.

7Information on the precongressional political experience of Members can be found in the online Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress at http://bioguide.congress.gov. Several women Members had a combination of state legislative and state executive office experience, including Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas, who served as state senator and Texas state treasurer, and Katherine Harris of Florida, who was a state senator and secretary of state. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma was a longtime member of the state house of representatives and lieutenant governor of Oklahoma for more than a decade.

8Jennifer E. Manning, “Membership of the 114th Congress: A Profile,” Congressional Research Service Report, 7 September 2016. According to CRS, 94 percent of all House Members and 100 percent of all Senators have a bachelor’s degree. By contrast, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015 only 58.9 percent of Americans had at least some college education. Camille L. Ryan and Kurt Bauman, “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015,” U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Reports, March 2016, https://www.census.gov.

9Based on date of birth figures extracted from the online Biographical Directory: http://bioguide.congress.gov.

10“The Honorable Constance A. Morella Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 16 June 2015, http://history.house.gov/Oral-History/Women/Representative-Morella/.

11David Finkel, “Women on the Verge of a Power Breakthrough,” 10 May 1992, Washington Post Magazine: W15.

12Finkel, “Women on the Verge of a Power Breakthrough.”

13“The Honorable Nancy Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 3 December 2015, http://history.house.gov/Oral-History/Women/Representative-NJohnson/.

14Wendy Koch, “Women Take on Career, Kids and Congress,” 17 November 1998, USA Today: 17A.