Jeannette Rankin of Montana traveled a unique path on her way to becoming the first woman elected to Congress in 1916. As she prepared to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, several significant developments in her home state buoyed her campaign.
First, women had won the right to vote in Montana’s statewide elections in 1914—a full six years before they won the franchise nationally. Rankin had been at the forefront of the struggle for women’s suffrage there, and her campaign was well positioned to reap the potential benefits of the expanded electorate. Second, the redistricting process after the 1910 Census had given Montana another At-Large seat in the House. One of the state’s Representatives, Tom Stout, declined to run for reelection in 1916, creating a vacancy and an opportunity for Rankin to avoid running against an incumbent. And finally, Rankin’s campaign had the financial backing of her wealthy brother, Wellington Rankin.
For the next 60 years, women candidates faced a number of obstacles in winning election to Congress. Many of those who did serve in the House during that period were elected on the “widow’s mandate,” in which the wives of deceased Members won election to the seat formerly held by their husbands. In the male-dominated world of mid-20th century American politics, however, success could be fleeting. No more than 20 women served in the House at any one time until the 97th Congress (1981–1983). Key factors such as campaign financing, the steady power of incumbency, constituent demographics, and persistent social and cultural barriers continued to limit the prospects for women in politics.
But during that time a small but growing number of women candidates built professional careers and won election to state and local offices. They picked up campaign and political experience, and, in some cases, access to national political networks which helped set the groundwork for a run for a seat in the House.
Since the 1970s, women candidates running for Congress have increasingly carved out more opportunities and built new coalitions. The Office of the Historian conducted interviews with several former women Members who traveled distinct routes to Capitol Hill. Two seemingly disparate stories from the early 1990s highlight how far women candidates have come since Rankin first won election more than 100 years ago.
In 1992, Eva M. Clayton declared her intention to run for the House seat from the First District of North Carolina when Representative Walter B. Jones Sr. announced his retirement after more than 26 years in office. When Jones died in September 1992, the November election suddenly became a race for the vacant seat in the 102nd Congress (1991–1993), as well as for the full term in the 103rd Congress (1993–1995).
This was not Clayton’s first attempt to win a House seat. In 1968, she challenged incumbent Lawrence H. Fountain for the Democratic nomination in North Carolina’s Second District. Fountain had been in office for 15 years and had rarely faced opposition for reelection. Clayton volunteered to run at a meeting of activists looking for a new candidate in eastern North Carolina. The Voting Rights Act had passed three years earlier and she ran hoping to attract new voters from the large African-American community in the district.
After Clayton’s decision to enter the primary in 1968, she raised more than $8,000 in political contributions—roughly $57,000 in today’s dollars—with $1,000 coming from the state AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education (COPE). Running against Fountain, one reporter speculated that Clayton was “likely to get a substantial protest and racial vote against the man regarded as the most solidly entrenched of all of North Carolina’s members of Congress.” Clayton’s insurgent run in the Democratic primary garnered 31 percent of the vote—not enough to win, but a strong showing against a formidable incumbent supported by the state Democratic Party, which dominated North Carolina politics at the time. Clayton recalled that “in that defeat, not only did I learn and appreciate what this position could do, but also in that I learned and appreciated the needs of people.”
After losing in 1968, Clayton picked up years of invaluable public service experience. She directed a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development initiative in the 1970s known as Soul City, which used federal funding to construct and administer a planned community for African Americans in Warren County, North Carolina. In 1977, Clayton was appointed assistant secretary for community development in the state’s department of natural resources and community development. She won election to the Warren County board of commissioners in 1982 and served as chair from 1984 to 1991. And she also founded an economic development consulting firm.
After more than two decades, significant legislative reforms and drastically different constituent demographics produced a new political landscape in North Carolina. Combined with the extensions of the Voting Rights Act over the previous 25 years, the 1990 Census had given way to a redistricting process that resulted in two “majority-minority” districts in North Carolina, including North Carolina’s First District. “Redistricting meant that we had the opportunity, because of the population demographics, that we could have that real political possibility of winning,” she recalled. The new House seat was one of 32 black-majority districts in the country during the 1992 elections. When Walter Jones Sr. cited his declining health, along with the revised district map, as decisive when he declined to run for reelection, Clayton jumped in the race.
By the time the 1992 election rolled around, Clayton was able to tout her experience in business and her record of public service in state and local government on the campaign trail. With political and business connections across the state, Clayton was able to garner campaign contributions from large groups like EMILY’s List (a Democratic pro-choice political action committee) and the North Carolina AFL-CIO, as well as from small donors. She noted that the African-American community “might have put in less money per check, but they put more checks in, and so we had an opportunity to rally people and tell them this is the time. ‘If you’re going to ever do it, you have to do it now. Don’t wait later to help with the banquet, we need it now.’ ”
She also emphasized her record of service, downplaying her status as the only woman in the race.
Clayton came in second in the primary, but since no candidate won 50 percent of the vote, the election went to a runoff. Clayton consolidated support from the other candidates and ultimately won the Democratic nomination, 55 percent to 45 percent.
Because the incumbent, Walter Jones Sr., had died in September 1992, the state of North Carolina held the special election to fill his vacancy on the same day as the general election to the full term. In November 1992, Clayton’s campaign slogan, “The Best for the First,” proved prophetic. She cruised to victory in both the special election and in the general election. Clayton recalled, “It was a new opportunity, and I think the electorate saw this as an opportunity, and they wanted to be engaged in that process. It was a sense of pride.” Her victory proved to be a landmark achievement in state political history—when she was sworn in as a Member for the remainder of the 102nd Congress, Clayton became the first African-American woman in the House from North Carolina and the first African-American legislator elected to the House from the state since George Henry White in 1898.
Sue Kelly had never run for any public office when she entered the election for the House seat from New York’s Nineteenth District in 1994. As a botanist, small business owner, and health care professional, Kelly had a diverse professional background. She had also been active in Republican Party politics in the Hudson Valley region for decades, leading and raising money for a number of campaigns. In 1972, she briefly worked for Congressman Hamilton Fish Jr. When Fish declined to run for reelection in 1994 after a quarter century in the House, Kelly thought, “I’ve been getting Republicans elected for decades. Why not me?”
The Fish family had held a New York congressional seat for nearly half of the 20th century. Hamilton Fish Jr.’s father, Hamilton Fish, represented New York’s Twenty-sixth District from 1920 to 1945. After the 1990 Census, the new congressional map for the state of New York adjusted the borders of the Nineteenth District, shifting it south by adding a significant portion of Westchester County to what had been a district based predominantly in Putnam County and parts of Dutchess and Orange Counties. The reconfiguration of the district brought in new voters, and the absence of an incumbent set the stage for a very different race in 1994.
Despite her lack of political experience, Kelly designed her campaign to exploit the new political landscape in the Nineteenth District. As one of 10 candidates vying for the open seat, Kelly emphasized her deep roots in the district and won a close Republican primary against former Member of Congress Joseph J. DioGuardi, who had represented the nearby Twentieth District from 1985 to 1989. In the general election, Kelly faced yet another Hamilton Fish, son of the departing Congressman, Hamilton Fish Jr. A magazine publisher and political renegade—he was a Democrat from a long line of Republicans—the youngest Fish derived immense political capital from his name.
Kelly’s platform focused on reducing government spending and cutting taxes, while also emphasizing her familiarity with the local economy. She discussed the district’s struggles to hold on to large employers, such as IBM, and called attention to the work her construction firm did in the area. “I’m not running as a politician, nor as a woman,” she declared, “but as a person caught in the same economic trap as everyone else in the region.” The ground game Kelly’s campaign built opened opportunities throughout the district. She recalled that she accepted “every invitation anybody gave me.”
Kelly received additional support from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), and she aligned her campaign with Republicans at the national level. In one instance, she traveled to Washington, DC, to appear on the steps of the Capitol with Republican candidates from across the country. She also signed the “Contract with America,” the party’s campaign document outlining the agenda for a Republican majority in the House. Kelly attracted support from the WISH List, an organization of Republican women who supported women’s reproductive rights, and the endorsement of New York state senator and Republican candidate for governor in 1994, George Pataki. In November, Kelly won the general election with 52 percent of the vote to Fish’s 37 percent.
Representatives Eva Clayton and Sue Kelly hailed from drastically different political traditions and represented vastly different congressional districts. But their campaign stories demonstrated a shared struggle for women candidates seeking a seat in the House in the early 1990s. Both Clayton and Kelly faced an uphill battle to overcome opponents with distinct advantages and prevailing social and political norms that restricted women on the campaign trail. They acted quickly to seize opportunities brought on by redistricting and the retirement of an incumbent, organizing campaigns rooted in local support. And they benefited from new allies to secure financial support and drew from their political and professional experiences to build campaigns that worked for their individual district.
Clayton and Kelly both went on to have long careers in the House. By the time they left Congress the number of women serving on Capitol Hill had grown. In Clayton’s final term in the House (2001–2003), 76 women served in Congress, up from 34 when she entered the House. During Kelly’s last term (2005–2007), she served alongside 85 women. The number of women in Congress has continued to grow. Today, during the 116th Congress (2019–2021), 131 women serve in the House and Senate.
Sources: “The Honorable Eva M. Clayton Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 15 May 2015; “The Honorable Sue W. Kelly Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 23 June 2016; Boston Globe, 5 October 1991; The Daily Times-News (Burlington, NC), 24 May 1968, 19 August 1977; New York Times, 7 May 1992, 29 August 1994, 18 September 1994, 23 October 1994, 13 November 1994; The Robesonian (Lumberton, NC), 29 April 1968; “Redrawn Majority Districts Face Challenges,” CQ Almanac 1993; L. Paige Whitaker, “Congressional Redistricting Law: Background and Recent Court Rulings,” Report R44798, 23 March 2017, Congressional Research Service; Almanac of American Politics, 1994 (Washington, DC: National Journal, Inc., 1993): 945–947; Value of 1968 dollars determined by using the Federal Reserve’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) calculator, accessed 7 March 2018, https://www.minneapolisfed.org/community/financial-and-economic-education/cpi-calculator-information/consumer-price-index-1800.Follow @USHouseHistory