I’m No Lady; I’m a Member of Congress: Women Pioneers on Capitol Hill, 1917-1934
Great triumphs and historic firsts highlight women’s initial foray into national political office. Four years after Jeannette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916, women won the right to vote nationally, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Rebecca Felton of Georgia became the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1922. That same year, Alice Robertson of Oklahoma became the first woman to preside over the House of Representatives. In 1923, Representative Mae Ella Nolan of California became the first woman to chair a congressional committee. Two other women followed her lead, including Mary Norton of New Jersey, the first woman elected from the East Coast, who would chair four House committees during her quarter-century career. In 1932, Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the Senate. Several other women attained prominent committee positions, including Representative Florence Prag Kahn of California, the first woman to serve on the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Nevertheless, women were still a distinct minority of the 435 House Members; at their peak during this period, nine served in the 71st Congress (1929–1931). They lacked the power to focus congressional attention on the issues that were important to them. Without seniority, and facing institutional prejudices, the early Congresswomen viewed leadership positions as an elusive quest. These adversities raise several questions: What routes did these pioneer women take to be elected to Congress? How did they relate to the women’s rights movement in America? Once they arrived in Congress, what agendas did they pursue? What were their legislative interests and committee assignments? What changes did they effect on Capitol Hill? And finally, were they able, or even inclined, to craft a unique identity for themselves?