Maybe it was a chance meeting . . . or maybe it wasn’t? On July 23, 1937, House Members Caroline O’Day of New York and Mary Norton of New Jersey met Senator Hattie Caraway of Arkansas in the halls of the U.S. Capitol. What made this spur-of-the-moment meeting unique was that three women chaired three committees simultaneously for the first time in congressional history.
Committee leaders' powers are often under-appreciated beyond Capitol Hill, but they exert great influence over the legislative process. A committee chair’s wide-ranging latitude includes establishing a committee’s legislative agenda and acting as a floor manager for legislation that is debated in both chambers. They also administer committee logistics, hire staff, and allocate resources to committee members.
Caroline O’Day’s path to Congress was based on building a groundswell of support throughout New York State through volunteer and patronage positions. She defeated 10 candidates to win an at-large U.S. House seat in 1934. In her second term, O’Day was named chair of the Committee on Election of the President, Vice President, and Representatives of Congress, a committee that reviewed national election laws and considered proposed changes to the U.S. Constitution involving congressional and presidential elections, and managing the electoral vote counts for presidential and vice presidential candidates. O’Day served on this committee for seven years.
“Battling Mary” Norton was the first woman to represent an eastern state in the House. Elected to the House in 1924, Norton served for a total of 12 terms and led four committees (District of Columbia, House Administration, Labor, Memorials). Already the first woman to chair a House Committee (Norton chaired the House Committee on the District of Columbia during the 72nd through 74th Congresses (1931–1937), Norton became chairman of the House Committee on Labor upon the death of William P. Connery, Jr. of Massachusetts in 1937. After the appointment, Norton told reporters, “I represent a labor district in New Jersey and I feel the people of that district have more claim on me than do the people of the District of Columbia or anyone else.” During her tenure on the Labor Committee, Norton shepherded through the House the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, equal pay for women in the workforce during World War II, and the establishment of the Fair Employment Practice Commission.
As the second woman appointed to the U.S. Senate and the first to win an election in her own right, Hattie Caraway learned the mores of Congress as the wife and political confidante of Thomas Caraway, who served four terms in the House and two terms in the Senate. Appointed to the Senate upon the death of her husband, Caraway ran and won a special election to the seat against four male opponents. In her first full term, Caraway became the first woman to lead a Senate committee when she was named chair of the Committee on Enrolled Bills, a committee that examined bills approved by both houses of Congress before sending them to the President for his signature. Caraway served on this committee for her entire Senate career until then-Representative J. William Fulbright defeated her in 1944.
The careers of Caroline O’Day, Mary Norton, and Hattie Caraway served as important institutional milestones for Congress. They demonstrated that women Members could represent constituents on their own merits and acquire enough seniority to chair committees. Their success at becoming prominent institutional players enabled future generations of women Members to follow in their footsteps. To date, a total of 32 women (19 in the House and 13 in the Senate) have chaired congressional committees.
Sources: “Caraway, Hattie Wyatt,” “O’Day, Caroline Love Goodwin,” and “Norton, Mary Theresa,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, http://history.house.gov/; Christian Science Monitor, 19 June 1937.Follow @USHouseHistory