On the afternoon of February 6, 1967, Representatives Catherine May, Patsy Mink, and Charlotte Reid derailed Herb Botts’ day. Botts managed the men’s gym in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building, but he never expected the three Congresswomen to show up for his 4:45 p.m. calisthenics class. After all, women Members of Congress had their own gym just steps away.
Nestled in a comfortable white sweatsuit, Botts struggled to maintain the modesty of the half-naked Congressmen scattering behind the gym’s saloon-style doors as Hawaii Representative Patsy Mink pointed to her stuffed handbag and politely announced, “We’ve come to join the class.” Flustered by the presence of the three women he evidently didn’t recognize, Botts exclaimed, “It’s just for Members of Congress.”
Blithely gesturing toward the gym’s intercom, Representative Reid said, “Why don’t you use that to let the class know there are three more?”
Although the three Congresswomen later assured Botts their presence was a gag, it was a “gag with a purpose,” they said. They drove home their point by gathering for a photo underneath the “Members Only” sign by the entrance to the gym.
The use of the gym went far beyond just equal access to exercise equipment. It was also about equal access to the institution’s traditions, about becoming equal partners in the legislative process. Activities as simple as working out together became opportunities to build relationships and lay the foundation for political deal-making. As women across the country pushed to overturn gender discrimination in public spaces, Congresswomen carried the fight to the Capitol.
The gym first opened in the Cannon House Office Building in 1921 in response to the troubling number of Member deaths attributed, at least in part, to a sedentary lifestyle. Initially, legislators paid for the gym’s equipment and its small staff out of their own pockets. When a two-floor state-of-the-art gym opened in the new Rayburn House Office Building in 1965, Congress folded the costs into the price of the building—including half a million dollars for a locker room and pool. At the same time, the House added a considerably smaller “Ladies Health Facility,” which was outfitted with dubious exercise machines like vibrating belts “and that sort of thing,” according to the Architect of the Capitol’s office.
Of particular interest to the Congresswomen was the pool. In a 1979 oral history, Patsy Mink insisted their abrupt arrival outside the gym’s doors was really about protesting for use of the swimming pool, where the men often preferred to wade in the buff. “Is it too much for the democratic process to ask you to put your pants on?” she scoffed. One week after the incident, Botts sent a memo to Catherine May’s office providing hours for women to swim. “He suggested that Mrs. May come by so that they can orient her on how to get into where she’s supposed to go,” read a message left by May’s staff, “otherwise, it could be quite embarrassing.”
Frustrations over the disparities between the men’s and women’s facilities only grew as more women won election to the House. So too did press attention on the gym, much to Botts’ discomfort. “Are you going to do some kind of article on this?” he asked a reporter in 1979 when questioned about the taxpayer cost of masseurs assigned to the gym. “I can’t see why anyone would be interested in the subject.” Another article in 1983 on the egalitarian nature of sports and exercise in the Capitol focused on how Congressmen bonded while they worked out before casually noting how female Members had occasionally “kicked up a fuss” about their exclusion from the gym. Again, Mr. Botts shared his thoughts. “When the building was planned, they didn’t envision 20 women members,” he said. “The ladies understand.”
The ladies most certainly did not understand. The 1980s inaugurated a fitness craze in the United States which was hardly unique to one gender. Barbara Boxer, then a sophomore Representative from California, wasn’t impressed with the equipment available in the Ladies Health Facility which consisted of old wooden rowing machines and wooden bars on the wall. Representative Pat Schroeder of Colorado described it as basically “six hairdryers and a ping-pong table.”
Representative Nancy Johnson of Connecticut and other women Members joined Boxer in lobbying 73-year-old Edward P. Boland of Massachusetts, head of the tiny, all-male, informal House gym committee which oversaw its maintenance. First they showed him the dismal accommodations in their own gym, and then—after the voting bell called Members to the floor—they pressured him in the well of the House. The request for new exercise machines confused Boland. “I don’t know why you want machines,” he blustered. “You know, those machines only build muscles.”
Exclusion from the gym had become a rallying point for the very reason it had attracted so much press: the opportunity to develop friendships and working relationships outside committee rooms and the House Floor. Members relied on these everyday interactions to build support for everything from legislation to leadership campaigns. Below, Representative Susan Molinari of New York recalled a leadership race where her exclusion from areas like the gym proved a potential stumbling block.
Representative Boxer refused to settle for a smaller, separate facility—even one with new equipment. “I felt it was important for women to work better in this high-stress life,” she reflected in 1991. “And if you saw a colleague on the bicycle next to you, it was an added benefit.” Boxer looped in Ohio Representatives Mary Rose Oakar and Marcy Kaptur, and the pair joined her to protest the separate and unequal facilities before a weekly meeting of Democratic whips in June 1985. Rewriting the lyrics to Has Anybody Seen My Gal, the trio belted out the tune:
Where to go, will you advise?
Can’t everybody use your gym?
Equal rights, we’ll wear tights,
Let’s avoid those macho fights,
Can’t everybody use your gym?
Now if you run into a colleague,
Who looks sad and blue,
She’ll fight and fuss, and sometimes cuss,
Betcha’ life it could be us,
Cause we’re not slim, we’re not trim,
Can’t you make it hers and him?
Can’t everybody use your gym?
We’re only asking,
Can’t everybody use your gym?
Nearly one month later, the House gym committee consisting of Boland, William H. Natcher of Kentucky, and John T. Myers of Indiana, officially integrated the facility. Though no special dispensations were made for the locker room, signs were posted declaring “Swimsuits Must Be Worn” much to the chagrin of Congressmen protesting for their “constitutional right to exercise in the nude.” Only a few female Members ended up taking advantage of the pool and gym facilities at the time. But for many it was enough that the opportunity existed.
Herb Botts, who still managed the gym when it integrated in 1985—18 years after being confronted by three resolute Congresswomen under the “Members Only” sign—had learned at last to avoid appearing in the press. “I’m not going to answer that,” he insisted when asked how women had changed the culture of the gym. But, he couldn’t resist one final word: “Members used to walk around fairly in the nude. Now they have to be very, very careful how they dress.”
Over the years, coed running, yoga, and fitness groups formed among the Members, and more women took advantage of the Members’ gym. Nevertheless, Congresswomen continued to campaign for equitable access, at first citing the lack of a women’s locker room and then the need for an (often absent) attendant to unlock the door (the only other door led right into the men’s locker room). Still, the gym remained open to both men and women. Given the possibility of running into Congressmen in various stages of undress, one female Member offered her own advice to those steely-eyed women looking to network while they worked out: “Just keep your eyes straight ahead.”
The fight to integrate the Members’ gym represented a series of small but important victories that paralleled changes happening on the national level. In 1972, Patsy Mink helped pass Title IX of the Education Acts, outlawing sexual discrimination under any education activity sponsored by the federal government, including sports.
For Mink, access to the House gym was just one chapter in the larger fight for equality. “It was just a symbolic gesture that there are so many ways in which sex discrimination manifests itself in the form of social custom, mores or whatever, that you really have to make an issue whenever it strikes to protest it,” Mink recalled. “You can’t tolerate it.”
Sources: Senate, Semiannual Report of the Architect of the Capitol for the Period April 1, 1983 through September 30, 1983, 98th Cong., 1st sess. (1983); Atlanta Constitution, 22 July 1979; Boston Globe, 23 April 1967; Chicago Tribune, 7 February 1967; Los Angeles Times, 10 March 1983; New York Times, 7 February 1967, 16 June and 25 July 1985, 30 September 2002, 3 July 2014; Washington Post, 18 April 1938, 12 March 1965, 8 June 1963, 26 June 1991, 7 August 2001; Patsy Mink, Oral History Interview, 7 June 1979, The Modern Congress in American History, Former Members of Congress, Inc., http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/eadmss.ms010086; “Memorandum regarding the House Gym Situation, 1967,” Catherine May Congressional Papers, Washington State University, Washington; “Donnald K. Anderson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [21 June 2006]; “The Honorable Nancy Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [3 December 2015]; “The Honorable Susan Molinari Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives [8 January 2016].
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