I’m No Lady; I’m a Member of Congress: Women Pioneers on Capitol Hill, 1917-1934

Introduction

Florence Kahn Portrait/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay1_2_KahnPortrait_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Florence Kahn of California was known for her effectiveness and sparkling wit. While serving on the Appropriations Committee, she secured prominent infrastructure projects, including the Bay Bridge and a Naval Air depot, for her San Francisco district.
Edith Nourse Rogers/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay1_1_Rogersrostrum_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts was thrust into political office when her husband, Representative John Jacob Rogers, died in 1925. During her 35-year House career, Rogers authored legislation that had far-reaching effects on American servicemen and women, including the creation of the Women’s Army Corp and the GI Bill of Rights.
Great triumphs and historic firsts highlight women’s initial foray into national political office. Four years after Jeannette Rankin of Montana 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 Mary 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 of Arkansas 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?

Next Section