Shared Experiences of Women in Congress
Though each generation of women in Congress displayed distinctive traits, experiences shared by women Members united them across the decades. One enduring pattern, called the “widow’s mandate,” the “widow’s succession,” or the “matrimonial connection,” has been an important route for women to attain congressional office, especially the women in the first three generations.15 Between 1917 and 1976, 95 women served in the House and the Senate and a third (34) were widows who were elected or appointed to succeed their late husbands. As of 2016, 46 widows (a fifth of the women who have served in Congress) have directly succeeded their husbands. When familial connections are considered (wives who succeeded living husbands or husbands who were nonincumbent candidates, wives appointed by husbands, or daughters of Members), the percentages are even more startling. Up until 1976, 46 percent of all women Members had benefited from a familial connection.
By 2005, that percentage had shrunk, but was still prominent, encompassing a little more than a quarter (27 percent) of all the women who had ever served in Congress. Still, the incidence of the widow’s mandate clearly has been in decline in recent decades. Among the third and fourth generations, ever-greater numbers of Congresswomen have drawn on their own experience in elective office. Moreover, the influence of the widow’s mandate, real and perceived, has been magnified by several factors. First, an unusually high number of women who received party nominations to run for their husbands’ former seats won their general elections. From 1923 through 2016, 80 percent of House widows who were nominated to run for their husbands’ seats won their elections.16 That success rate is far higher than the winning percentage for women elected to the House who were neither incumbents nor widows. Through the 1992 election, for example, just 14 percent of these women won their elections.17
A chief commonality among widows in Congress has been the brevity of their service; half of the congressional widows elected to office served one term or less. This trend was particularly prevalent among widows from the South (14 served one term or less) who were nominated by their parties to serve as temporary placeholders until a sustainable male successor could be chosen. There have been, of course, notable exceptions. Several widows created in the public mind an enduring image of the prototypical widow successor. They readily adapted to the institution because of extensive experience with their husbands’ agendas and subsequently distinguished themselves. For instance, the longest-serving woman in congressional history, Edith Nourse Rogers (1925–1960), was a widow who succeeded her late husband, John Rogers. Several other widows exercised considerable influence in Congress for many years, in some cases more than their husbands, such as Florence Prag Kahn (1925–1937), Frances Bolton (1940–1969), Margaret Chase Smith (1940–1973), and Lindy Boggs of Louisiana (1973–1991). As a group, widows tended to receive more press attention because of the tragic or unlikely circumstances of their entry into political office, thus reinforcing public perceptions about the power of the widow’s mandate.18
Familial obligations and social expectations concerning a woman’s role in the family contributed to another shared experience among women in Congress. Congresswomen from the pioneer generation onward have striven to balance the demands of their private family life and public perceptions about women’s responsibilities to fulfill those demands with those of their public careers. This added responsibility has not been incumbent on their male colleagues. The third and fourth generations of women to enter Congress were especially confronted with this challenge, since more of them entered political office with young children.
Motherhood provided Congresswomen with unique burdens, but it also equipped them with unique legislative insights. Representative Emily Douglas of Illinois understood well how family responsibilities could affect women’s participation in politics. Douglas was elected to the House in 1944 as the mother of an 11-year-old daughter while her husband, Paul, who later became a U.S. Senator, was overseas in the military. “What everybody needs to make a good race is a good wife,” Congresswoman Douglas observed. “Now that’s where a woman is handicapped. When a man goes into politics and wins his wife is happy and proud to pull up stakes, corral her children, and move to the designated center of government. But a woman’s position is different, in that her husband often has a business, she has her home to maintain, and her children are established in school.”19
The power of the traditional notion of a woman’s role as wife, mother, and caregiver is aptly illustrated by the career of Representative Coya Knutson of Minnesota. Elected to Congress in 1954, Knutson emerged as a promising advocate for education reform and agricultural issues. Her career was destroyed in 1958, however, when her abusive and jealous husband falsely accused her of abandoning the family. In 1950s America, that accusation was especially powerful. Most women Members of Congress were not confronted with such direct attacks, but many, especially those who were young or single, faced subtle discrimination on the campaign trail by male political opponents who stressed their roles as fathers and family men. Women faced doubters even within their own ranks. Shortly after Patricia Schroeder’s 1972 election to the House, one of her feminist woman colleagues asked how she planned to raise her toddlers and simultaneously advance in her congressional career.
Congresswomen also understood that motherhood and familial duties provided them with a unique perspective on legislation that was not always prioritized by Congressmen. Some embraced conventional gender roles linking women to consumer issues and child-rearing. For instance, Woodhouse emphasized the way motherhood fostered her capacity for empathy and understanding. “I am sure I became a finer Congresswoman for being a mother,” she said. “It gave me a better understanding of people’s problems. Yes, there were conflicts. Yes, I was thought of as a peculiar creature. But the kids were my motivation. . . . They become in the end the reason for striving.”21
Barbara Kennelly of Connecticut went beyond Woodhouse’s focus on familial duties to emphasize the policy implications of an increasing number of women legislators. Kennelly stressed that it was “terribly important” for women to be appointed to influential committees, such as Ways and Means. “You bring a whole new aspect to issues. Your arguments can be very, very different. You’ve lived life as a woman, and that brings a different set of experiences.” Kennelly added that women traversed different segments of the workforce, such as health care and social services and their social networks were more likely to foster empathy for the difficulties faced by working mothers. This allowed women to “bring a whole other approach to legislation,” she said. “There are many, many, many ways women and men are the same and in many, many, many ways we’re very different.”22
Despite the contributions of women Members, each generation of women in Congress faced different obstacles preventing equal participation in the legislative body. Congress has been exceptionally resistant to accommodating the rising number of women working in Congress, and early women Members lacked basic necessities. For instance, it was not until the 1960s that women Members secured bathroom facilities and a lounge near the House Floor; it took women in the Senate three more decades to get access to such facilities. Into the 1990s, Congresswomen had limited access to congressional gym and exercise facilities built for men.
Finally, women in Congress have shared the experience of being a minority, whether they were “insiders” or “outsiders,” whether they were one-term congressional widows or accomplished committee chairs, and whether or not they had familial responsibilities in addition to their professional responsibilities. The modest, but growing, numerical strength of women in Congress, coupled with changing expectations about gender roles in American society, considerably altered the congressional experience of women since the early 1990s.
A number of structural factors constrained the ability of women Members to implement their legislative agendas and achieve positions of power in Congress. Congresswomen’s experiences have varied, depending on the peculiarities of the chamber in which they served.23 In addition to differences in membership and parliamentary procedure, the opportunities to serve on committees, election requirements, and availability of mentors and leadership patrons have affected women’s congressional careers. The size of the House (435 Members) meant there were larger and more committees women could choose from to develop legislative expertise. In the Senate, the 100 Members had more committee assignments than their House counterparts; so, women were more likely to receive at least one prominent assignment. This was true of the four women between 1930 and 1980 who served more than an abbreviated term: Hattie Caraway of Arkansas, on Commerce; Margaret Chase Smith, on Armed Services and Appropriations; Maurine Neuberger of Oregon, on Agriculture; and Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas, on Foreign Relations. Compared with their House colleagues, however, Senators tended to be generalists rather than specialists.24
Moreover, the constitutional requirement that House Members be elected has benefited women by providing more opportunities. Particularly in cases of sudden deaths of sitting Representatives, special elections have proven to be disruptive because (depending on state law) they must occur on relatively short notice. Local party leaders have sometimes chosen widows because of their experience as political advisers to or surrogates for their husbands. Just as often, party leaders have nominated widows because their names made them electable and because their choices forestalled or prevented intraparty skirmishes. Conversely, interim Senators may be appointed by state governors, offering in many cases an opportunity for party continuity and a longer window before the election of a successor to a full, six-year term. Thus, in the Senate, choosing a widow was less desirable except as a means of postponing a choice between competing factions (as with Dixie Bibb Graves of Alabama) or of boosting a governor’s political fortunes with a bloc of voters (as with Rebecca Felton of Georgia). A number of early women Senators were appointees, but women in the House, including many who served long terms, clearly benefited more from special elections.
In the last two decades, women in the House have had more female predecessors and colleagues and, consequently, more mentors. Before 1992, 116 women had served in House history and only 18 had served in Senate history, 11 of the latter serving just long enough to finish the remainder of their predecessors’ terms. As recently as the first session of the 95th Congress (1977–1979), there were no women serving in the Senate. Women in the Senate were a novelty until the 1990s. For much of the 20th century, only one or two women served simultaneously in the upper chamber, islands in a sea of male colleagues. There was virtually no female support. By contrast, from 1951 on, a minimum of 10 women served in the House, enough to provide, if not an issues caucus, then at least a network for advice and a forum for exchange and camaraderie. Moreover, long-serving deans in this group, among them Mary Norton, Frances Bolton, and Leonor Sullivan, tried to build a spirit of cooperation and collegiality among senior and junior women Members.
Women remained a marginalized minority for decades, only convincing committee chairs and congressional leadership to assign them to key committees in the 1950s and 1960s in the House and in the 1980s and 1990s in the Senate. In the last 20 years, women in Congress have experienced dramatic gains in terms of numerical representation, committee and subcommittee chair appointments, and leadership positions. In 1992, 28 women were elected to Congress, more than the total number of women who were elected or appointed to Congress in any previous decade.25 From 1992 to 2016, 194 women were elected to Congress, roughly 61 percent of all the women who have served in the history of the institution. Key leadership figures in both parties in the House displayed on several occasions a willingness to promote women to middle- and, at times, top-tier committee posts. The number of women heading subcommittees rose to unprecedented levels from 2007 to 2011. Finally, Representative Nancy Pelosi successfully climbed the congressional leadership ladder by attaining three influential positions in less than a decade: Democratic Whip, Democratic Leader, and Speaker of the House.
In 1916 Jeannette Rankin’s desire to exercise the full power and potential of her office went unfulfilled. After a century of change, women now participate in unprecedented ways at every level of Congress. The increasing number of women in significant committee posts and leadership positions are markers of institutional advancement, underlining tangible gains in representation, status, and political power. Even though social and cultural ideas about gender roles continue to hamper efforts by many women to enjoy equal treatment in American politics, an array of career possibilities now exist for women Members. After Rankin’s brief, isolated experience in the 65th Congress, several generations of women have successfully forged a new political culture that has steadily opened space for women to pursue personal, partisan, and institutional advancement in American politics.
15Irwin Gertzog is a leading analyst of the “matrimonial connection.” See his discussion in Gertzog, Congressional Women: 17–36. See also his early analysis, Irwin Gertzog, “Changing Patterns of Female Recruitment to the U.S. House of Representatives,” Legislative Studies Quarterly IV (no. 3, August 1979): 429–445.
16Gertzog, Congressional Women: 34. Through 2016, the figure is 38 out of 47 congressional widows were successful winning the party nomination and the election to succeed their late husbands. See Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Familial Connections of Women Representatives and Senators in Congress,” http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Data/Familial-Connections-of-Women-Representatives-and-Senators-in-Congress.
17Gertzog, Congressional Women: 20–21.
18Perceptions generated by media coverage of a widow Member’s exceptional circumstances or achievements often masked the rather one-sided statistical realities. Most widows of Congressmen never even received their husbands’ party nomination. For instance, in the House from 1916 to January 2, 2017, 434 Representatives died in office. All but Edith Nourse Rogers, Vera Daerr Buchanan, and Patsy T. Mink were male. Many were bachelors or widowers, but about 300 had wives who could have been tapped to replace them. See Gertzog, Congressional Women: 19. Statistics through the 102nd Congress (1991–1993) are Gertzog’s. An additional 30 individuals died in office from the 103rd through the 114th Congresses (1993 to January 2, 2017).
19Martha Rhyne, “The Douglas Duo Raps Feminine Refusal to Accept Political Role,” 25 February 1945, Washington Post: S1.
20Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988).
21“A Pioneering Feminist Savors Grandmother Role,” 10 May 1981, New York Times.
22“Barbara Kennelly Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 9 September 2015
23For a standard reference source on the differences between the structure and operations of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, see the aforementioned study by Baker, House and Senate.
24Baker, House and Senate: 55, 68–70.
25Jennifer E. Manning and Ida A. Brudnick, "Women in Congress, 1917-2015: Biographical and Committee Assignment Information, and Listings by State and Congress,” CRS Report RL30261 (27 April 2015); Jennifer E. Manning, Ida A. Brudnick, and Colleen J. Shogan, "Women in Congress: Historical Overview, Tables, and Discussion,” CRS Report RL43244 (29 April 2015); Office of the Historian, “Women in Congress,” http://history.house.gov/Exhibition-and-Publications/WIC/Women-in-Congress/.