To commemorate the centennial of the election of the first woman to Congress, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the Office of the Historian conducted interviews with former women Members and staff. The interviews covered a range of topics, including a growing phenomenon—the election of women with young children. By 1998, more than 20 percent of women Members came to Congress with children under the age of 18.
In their oral histories, Congresswomen revealed how they approached the responsibilities of raising young children and working in the public spotlight with the humor, creativity, flexibility, and patience required to balance home life with a demanding job. Although each situation offered a unique set of challenges, these Members paved the way for future mothers who opted to pursue a career in Congress before their children were grown.
A rising political star who made history as the first African-American woman to serve in the California assembly, Yvonne Burke first won election to the U.S. House for the 93rd Congress (1973–1975). Burke again made history when she became the first Member to give birth while serving in Congress. Her pregnancy made her an instant media curiosity. “Well, people in the press wanted to know, ‘Well, what happens if you have a child? In the morning, who takes care of the child during the day?’ They asked me if they could come in. I said, ‘Sure, you can come in, and you can watch me leave the baby and me drive off. I’m happy to do that.’ Yes, those kinds of things—real curiosity. ‘How does she do it? Where does—who feeds the baby? Who drives her to work? How does she do this?’ So, I was pleased to let them know about it.”
Pat Schroeder of Colorado
When Pat Schroeder was sworn in as a Member of the U.S. House in 1973 she was the second youngest woman ever elected to Congress and one of only a handful of woman Members to serve with young children. Doubts swirled about how Schroeder would manage a busy congressional schedule and a family. “So many people said, ‘Oh, I don’t know how you’re going to do this,’” Schroeder recalled. “And I was kind of the same way. ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do it either but I guess I’ve got to do it, so let’s figure this out.’ I’ll never forget, getting a phone call from Bella Abzug, and I thought, oh, I’d never met her, but I thought, oh, finally, somebody who’s going to say, ‘Yes, that’s great.’ And she goes, ‘I hear you have two kids.’ I said, ‘Yes, I have a two-year-old and a six-year-old.’ ‘I don’t think you can do the job,’ she said . . . so, it wasn’t even just being a woman, it was being a young woman with little kids, and that really threw people for a loop.”
Schroeder embraced her role as a working mother in Congress and often dealt with the ensuing chaos and challenges with a sense of humor. She recalled how frequent travel to and from her Colorado district with her children led to some memorable moments.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida
A childhood refugee of Cuba and mother of two, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen won a special election in 1989 to represent a Miami-based House seat. An experienced legislator who served in the Florida state house and senate, Ros-Lehtinen set her sights on Congress to pursue her interest in foreign affairs. She discussed how family made it possible for her to serve in the House and care for her children. “I got elected to Congress when my kids were only two and three years old,” Ros-Lehtinen remarked. “That is really difficult. So, what we did is they would fly up with me every week, but so would my mother.” The Florida Congresswoman also shared memories of campaigning for Congress with young children and the resistance she faced.
Susan Molinari of New York
Susan Molinari won a special election to Congress in 1990, to succeed her father in the House. During her congressional tenure she married Representative Bill Paxon of New York and gave birth to their first child in 1996. At the time, she was one of only four women to have given birth while serving in Congress. Molinari described her experience as a new mother in Congress and how she handled the day-to-day work schedule while also caring for a newborn baby. With no guidelines in place on how to care for an infant while working in the House, Molinari devised ways to balance her diverse responsibilities. “I’d take her on the train,” she remembered, “going back and forth between the House and the little—it’s a little ride, but it would be, she just, she loved it. She would go right to sleep.”
Molinari discussed the bonds that formed between women Members who gave birth in Congress and how they would offer helpful advice to one another. The New York Representative also recalled the willingness of her colleagues to lend a helping hand, including her husband.
Deborah Pryce of Ohio
Elected to the House in 1992, Deborah Pryce eventually served in leadership eventually as chair of the Republican Conference. Her election as conference chair on November 13, 2002 made her the highest-ranking Republican woman in House history. During her time in Congress, Pryce’s young daughter died of cancer. A few years later, in 2001, she adopted a baby girl. Pryce remembered the support she received from her colleagues. She and the other Congresswomen with young children shared baby items and organized outings for their families. “We stayed here a weekend and did all those kinds of things were fun, and then we would travel some for political things, and our kids would go,” Pryce noted. The Ohio Representative also described how she developed a routine to manage life as a single mother and as a busy Congresswoman.
Barbara Kennelly of Connecticut
Barbara Kennelly came to Congress in a special election in 1982 after a career in Connecticut state politics. The mother of four children, Kennelly spoke of the sacrifice involved in leaving her family behind to pursue a career in Congress. Shortly after her election, she set out to win a seat on the influential House Ways and Means Committee, hoping to make the most of her time in the House. “And I campaigned, I campaigned very hard,” Kennelly observed. “I left my son at home when he was a little boy in grammar school in the sixth grade to come to Congress and I wanted to make it worth it. Two of my girls were in high school, one was just beginning her freshman year in college, and I wasn’t going to be down here doing nothing. This was a big deal to leave home. And so I fought very hard to get on that committee. There were three openings. So, it really was a race. And you went at it, and at it, and at it. I won the first spot.” Kennelly served on Ways and Means from 1983 until she left Congress in 1999. Her determination and focus made it possible for her to make the impact she desired.
Nearly three decades earlier, Abzug, and many others in Congress, wondered if women could even serve in the House while caring for young children. These women pioneers demonstrated that with support and the ability to find a balance between the responsibilities of life at work and at home, Congresswomen could not only get by, but could thrive and make a lasting impact on the institution.
Enjoy more interviews from women Members in the Century of Women in Congress oral history project.
Sources: “The Honorable Yvonne Braithwaite Burke Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 22 July 2015; “The Honorable Patricia Scott Schroeder Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 3 June 2015; “The Honorable Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 16 April 2018; “The Honorable Susan Molinari Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 8 January 2016; “The Honorable Deborah D. Pryce Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 9 August 2018; “The Honorable Barbara Bailey Kennelly Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 9 September 2015.Follow @USHouseHistory