The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke

Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
“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

Abstract & Transcript

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.

Biography

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.

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Video

Women and the Civil Rights Movement

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke remembers women's involvement in the civil rights movement.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Gender and the Campaign

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke reflects on California's political atmosphere during her congressional campaign in 1972.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Race and Gender

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke discusses the challenges she faced as an African-American woman.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Congresswomen in the Public Eye

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke discusses the portrayal of women Members in the press.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

"I Was Me"

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke discusses her behavior, appearance, and relationships with other Congresswomen, like Bella Abzug of New York.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

"No Facilities for Women"

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke recalls Representative Bella Abzug of New York using the men's pool.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

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, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Ebony Feature

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke remembers being featured on the cover of Ebony magazine with her daughter.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Diversity in the Congressional Black Caucus

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke recalls the different constituencies the Black Caucus represented.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Chairing a "Caucus of Stars"

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke shares memories of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Help for the House Beauty Shop

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke discusses her decision to chair the Beauty Shop Committee.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

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, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Three Constituencies

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke describes the three constituencies she felt she represented.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

A Different Dimension

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke describes the diverse qualities women bring to the House.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Women Members and Fundraising

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke encourages women to move into leadership roles by competitively fundraising.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Images & Artifacts

Swearing In, 1973
<i>Swearing In, 1973</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_burke_albert.xml
Representative Yvonne Burke posed with Speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma for a ceremonial swearing-in photo at the start of her first congressional term in January 1973.
Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office
Congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke
<i>Congresswoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_burke_portrait.xml
Representative Burke during her first term in Congress (1973–1975).
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
Public Works Committee Hearing
<i>Public Works Committee Hearing</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_burke_committee.xml
Representative Yvonne Burke during a Public Works Committee hearing in 1973.
Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office
Ebony Feature, 1974
<i>Ebony Feature, 1974</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_burke_ebony.xml
In her oral history, Representative Yvonne Burke recalls the 1974 Ebony magazine featuring her and her daughter, Autumn.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
Yvonne and William Burke
<i>Yvonne and William Burke</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_burke_husband.xml
Representative Yvonne Burke and her husband, William, in front of the U.S. Capitol in December 1975.
Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office
Representatives Burke, Chisholm, and Spellman
<i>Representatives Burke, Chisholm, and Spellman</i>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_burke_chisholm.xml
Representative Yvonne Burke alongside Representative Shirley Chisholm of New York (left), the first black woman in Congress, and Representative Gladys Spellman of Maryland (center) in 1977.
Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office