A Changing of the Guard: Traditionalists, Feminists, and the New Face of Women in Congress, 1955-1976
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
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.
1For further reading, see Jo Freeman’s A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.): 227–235.
2Elizabeth Kastor, “A Woman’s Place; The 1950s Were Not Easy for Females in Congress,” 17 November 1996, Washington Post: F01.