Large shards of glass tumble from a tall, imposing ceiling previously viewed as indestructible. Women from many backgrounds move confidently toward the scene marveling at the gaping hole. By now, most people are familiar with the metaphorical “breaking the glass ceiling” to depict monumental gains made by women in politics, business, industry, and sports. Iconic images like Rosie the Riveter during World War II illustrated a break from tradition that made it more acceptable for women to leave the sphere of domesticity and move into the workforce. Well before the Second World War, Jeannette Rankin of Montana played her part in shattering gender stereotypes when in 1917, she became the first woman elected to Congress. This milestone paved the way for hundreds of women to follow in her footsteps.
But for all of the headline-generating moments that helped women break down barriers there also were smaller acts within the walls of the Capitol where Congresswomen challenged the status quo. Oral histories conducted by the Office of the House Historian provide examples of how women Representatives quietly changed the institution in ways that stretched boundaries and altered people’s perceptions about the role of women in Congress.
Tucked away off the House Chamber, cloakrooms for Members of both parties offer a respite from the spotlight, procedures, and debates of the House Floor. Historically known as a place where Representatives could grab a bite to eat or play cards between votes, cloakrooms also allowed Members a room to rest during long legislative days. Longtime House Clerk Donnald K. Anderson recalled the warm and relaxed atmosphere of the Democratic Cloakroom in his oral history. Anderson also remembered how women Representatives “would come in and use the phone booths, and they would have a sandwich or a cup of coffee at the snack bar, but you never saw them sitting in the club chairs, and definitely not reclining on the couches.” One day, however, according to Anderson, Helen Meyner of New Jersey, shocked her colleagues when she took a nap in the area typically reserved for men. Although a small act of rebellion, Meyner’s insistence on using the cloakroom in a similar fashion as her male colleagues was a quiet, but important step in women Members gaining equality within the institution.
As more women came to Congress during the 20th century, the institution gradually evolved to meet the needs of its newest Members. Inadequate bathroom facilities and areas in the Capitol reserved for men were a few of the obstacles faced by women who won election to the House. Some women Members like Bella Abzug of New York directly challenged the inequalities. The New York Representative demanded access to the Members-only pool, for instance, refusing to give up her fight even after she was told women were prohibited because some of the men liked to swim in the nude. Representative Patricia Schroeder of Colorado noted the differences between the gyms for male and female Members. “They finally decided to put a gym in this building here, in Rayburn, for women, and it had 20 hairdryers and a ping-pong table, and a masseuse or something,” she recalled. “It was like, ‘Is that your definition of a gym? Can I see what the men have for a gym?’”
Representative Nancy Johnson of Connecticut also observed the disparity in the exercise facilities set aside for men and women. She and then-Representative Barbara Boxer of California led the charge in attaining gym equipment comparable to the Congressmen. Johnson remembers the confusion and disbelief she faced when lobbying a male colleague for better quality exercise equipment for women Members.
Networking and finding ways to connect with other Members remains an important part of congressional life. Even as their numbers grew in Congress into the 1970s, 1980s and the early 1990s (most especially with the Year of the Woman that brought 24 new women to the House in the 1992 elections), women Representatives often faced institutional barriers when working with their male colleagues. Although women won the fight for a better gym, Representative Susan Molinari of New York pointed out that it did not mean they had the same advantages as the men. “Back in the day, we had our separate gyms . . . I don’t necessarily need to work out with a bunch of sweaty men, but that was another one of those occasions where you interacted not as Members of Congress, but as people who are trying to lose weight or just [develop] the relationship in another area.” These relationships, Molinari noted, were essential when trying to craft legislation, whip votes, or run for leadership positions.
Barbara Kennelly of Connecticut won a hard-fought battle to earn a seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee. The Connecticut Representative recalled facing resistance because of her gender on what was then a predominantly male committee. “I didn't ever let them know it bothered me,” she said. “When you don't bite, it's over.” Kennelly learned that golf helped her fit in with her male colleagues and provided access to a mostly male world where Members shared essential information and made political deals. Kennelly’s polished game also allowed her to forge close relationships with powerful Members like Speaker Tip O’Neill and Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski which in turn helped her advance in her congressional career.
Winning election to Congress was only half the battle for many women Members. Institutional change took time. Congresswomen from both parties chipped away at the glass ceiling every day by their mere presence in the House and with subtle acts that challenged traditions that excluded women or discouraged a level playing field. All of these small, yet significant actions, paved the way for women’s inclusion and gradual acceptance in the institution.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the election and swearing-in of the first woman in Congress, we will publish a series of blog posts about the early women Members and the changing role of women in the institution. Check back each month through 2017 to see the latest posts.Follow @USHouseHistory