Today, Capitol police officers direct some visitors in the House Chamber through a door marked “Ladies’ Gallery.” Men and women sit there, and always have. So why call it the Ladies’ Gallery?
The story of the Ladies’ Gallery begins in New York in 1789, soon after the House achieved its first quorum. In early April newspapers reported “a Bevy of Ladies” had appeared in the House to watch the proceedings in the public observation area, called the gallery.
When Congress moved to the District of Columbia in 1801, politically engaged women kept coming, finding seats in the gallery and on the floor of the old Hall of the House (present day Statuary Hall). The notoriously crowded galleries were uncomfortable, and what’s more, they were morally suspect. By the 1820s, the gallery had gotten so unsavory that the House installed a partition to keep women of questionable repute “from mingling with the unsmirched ladies . . . an arrangement which was greatly needed,” according to the New York Spectator.
By 1833, matters had gotten out of hand. Respectable women clamored to use the sofas on the House Floor rather than the galleries. By then, the House had grown from the original 65 Representatives to 213. The floor was so crowded and the noise so deafening that Members demanded drastic measures. The House built a new gallery on the south side of the chamber expressly for ladies and their escorts, and named it the Ladies’ Gallery. It became the favorite spot for women interested in politics, including frequent visitor First Lady Dolley Madison.
Situated just above the Speaker’s rostrum, it was the perfect perch from which to watch heated debate in the chamber below. It was never an easy spot to reach, however. One took “a dark, narrow, winding, and dirty stair-case, in which strangers are not unfrequently [sic] lost.” When the House moved to its new chamber in 1857, one of the first orders of business was to designate areas of the galleries for the press, the diplomatic corps, and women. The Ladies’ Gallery was placed in the southwestern corner of the gallery level. It continued to be a favored spot, sometimes crowded to overflowing. Today, although any visitor may use the seating, the “Ladies’ Gallery” sign is still there, and the area is traditionally used by the First Lady and guests during presidential addresses to Congress.
Sources: Gazette of the United States (New York), Issue III (April 18–22, 1789); Daily National Intelligencer, Volume XXI, Issue 6511 (December 21, 1833); Congressional Globe, 35th Cong., 1st sess. (23 December 1857): 170, 171.