The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke
“It was one of those things I accepted. I probably would have preferred it not to be such a big issue because all the personal stuff was printed, my age and all of these things. And there was a lot of discussion in terms of my background, that I had no children before, and all those things that might have been embarrassing. But the reality is, if you ran for Congress at that time and you were a woman, everything about you was always open to the press. Your life was an open book. What you wore, where you went to the hairdresser, whatever—everything about you, because everyone was looking at you.”
— The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, July 22, 2015
U.S. Representative from California (January 3, 1973-January 3, 1979)
Yvonne Brathwaite Burke came to Congress as a nationally-known political figure. Her notoriety in the Democratic Party and experience in the California assembly opened doors not typically available to new Members, such as an assignment on the influential Appropriations Committee during her second term in the House. In her interview, Burke reflects on how she made history on Capitol Hill, as the first African-American woman to represent California in Congress and as the first Member to give birth while serving in the House. As a new mother, Burke entered unchartered territory for a woman Member of Congress: how to navigate a demanding career and care for an infant, all while in the public spotlight.
Burke explains how the fight for racial equality sparked her interest in politics. She acknowledges the demands placed on black Representatives during the 1970s, when frequent travel and speaking engagements across the country resulted in extra pressure and sometimes unrealistic expectations for Members often viewed as national representatives for all African Americans. In Burke’s discussion about her African-American colleagues, she shares her observations of the Congressional Black Caucus, including her time as chair—another historic achievement as the first woman to lead the caucus. She also describes the Congressional Women’s Caucus and the close bond shared by many of the women Members who, due to their small numbers, often socialized in the House and on congressional delegations. Burke’s interest in helping women extended beyond her district to the Capitol, something evidenced by her attempts to keep the House Beauty Shop open and to protect the rights of its women employees. In her oral history, Burke illustrates how race and gender intersected in the institution on the heels of the civil rights movement.
BURKE, Yvonne Brathwaite, a Representative from California; born Perle Yvonne Watson in Los Angeles, Calif., October 5, 1932; attended the public schools in Los Angeles; B.A., University of California, Los Angeles, Calif., 1953; J.D., University of Southern California School of Law, Los Angeles, Calif., 1956; lawyer, private practice; served as deputy corporation commissioner, hearing officer for Los Angeles Police Commission, and attorney on the staff of the McCone commission; member of the California state assembly, 1967-1972; delegate to Democratic National Convention, 1972; elected as a Democrat to the Ninety–third and to the two succeeding Congresses (January 3, 1973–January 3, 1979); not a candidate for reelection to the Ninety–sixth Congress in 1978, but was an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for State Attorney General of California; appointed by the Governor to the Los Angeles County, Calif., board of supervisors, 1979–1980; member of the Los Angeles County, Calif., board of supervisors, 1992-2008; director, Amtrak board of directors, 2013 to present; member of the California state transportation commission, 2013 to present; is a resident of Los Angeles, Calif.Read full biography
Women and the Civil Rights Movement
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke remembers women's involvement in the civil rights movement.
Gender and the Campaign
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke reflects on California's political atmosphere during her congressional campaign in 1972.
Race and Gender
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke discusses the challenges she faced as an African-American woman.
Congresswomen in the Public Eye
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke discusses the portrayal of women Members in the press.
"I Was Me"
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke discusses her behavior, appearance, and relationships with other Congresswomen, like Bella Abzug of New York.
"No Facilities for Women"
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke recalls Representative Bella Abzug of New York using the men's pool.
Debating a Pregnant Member
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke remembers Members of Congress trying to find someone with "the nerve" to debate her while she was pregnant.
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke remembers being featured on the cover of Ebony magazine with her daughter.
Diversity in the Congressional Black Caucus
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke recalls the different constituencies the Black Caucus represented.
Chairing a "Caucus of Stars"
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke shares memories of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Help for the House Beauty Shop
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke discusses her decision to chair the Beauty Shop Committee.
Role of the Women's Caucus
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke discusses the motivation behind creating a women's caucus in the House.
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke describes the three constituencies she felt she represented.
A Different Dimension
The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke describes the diverse qualities women bring to the House.