This month’s Edition for Educators celebrates Women’s History Month by focusing on the many women who have chaired committees in the U.S. House of Representatives. Seven years after Montana Representative Jeannette Rankin took the oath of office as the first woman in Congress, California Representative Mae Ella Nolan made history again by becoming the first woman to chair a House committee. Today, women chair a record seven House committees in the 116th Congress (2019–2021), and many more chair subcommittees responsible for significant sections of legislation and oversight.
Representative Mae Ella Nolan of California
Mae Ella Nolan is responsible for a lot of “firsts” in the U.S. House of Representatives. As the first woman to succeed her late husband in Congress, widow Mae Ella Nolan set a precedent by championing the legislative agenda of John I. Nolan. Congresswoman Nolan’s example influenced many future widows who succeeded their late husbands in Congress. At the beginning of the 68th Congress (1921–1923), Nolan became the first women named to chair a Congressional committee when she was appointed to head the Committee on Expenditures in the Post Office and received all the attendant national press attention that came with her historic appointment.
The Committee on Education and Labor
On March 21, 1867, the House established the Committee on Education and Labor, with Representative Jehu Baker of Illinois serving as its first chairman. In 1883, the House split the committee into two separate panels—the Committee on Education and the Committee on Labor. Representative Mary Norton of New Jersey became the first woman to chair the Labor Committee in the 75th Congress (1937–1939), shepherding through the House the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which provided for a 40-hour work week, outlawed child labor, and set a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour.
Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee
In her oral history, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida discusses the process of the Republican Steering Committee and her experience skipping the line of seniority to become Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2011.
Louise McIntosh Slaughter
In 2007, New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter became the first woman to chair the House Rules Committee. Her portrait references many elements of Rules Committee procedure and major pieces of legislation passed during her tenure as chair.
Leonor Kretzer Sullivan
Leonor Sullivan was the first woman in Congress from Missouri and only the second woman to have her portrait included in the House's collection of fine art. As Chairwoman of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, her accomplishments included establishing a fisheries conservation zone that extended 200 miles off the U.S. coastline. Her portrait is signed by the pseudonymous artist “C. J. Fox.”
Women Who Have Chaired Committees in the U.S. House, 1923–Present
Since 1921, 26 women have chaired a standing, select, or joint committee. As part of the Women in Congress project, the office keeps this chart of women who have chaired committees as a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Women Chairs of Subcommittees of Standing Committees in the U.S. House, 1947–Present
Though information on subcommittee chairmanships is more difficult to find prior to the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, the office maintains a complete list of subcommittee chairmanships held by women from 1947 to the present.
Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps Bill
As a field hospital inspector during World War I, Massachusetts Representative Edith Nourse Rogers encountered other women who served on a contractual or voluntary basis but received no legal protection or medical care for their essential service. In response, she introduced this bill to “make available to the national defense, when needed, the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of this Nation.” Five years later following a massive reorganization of the committee system, Rogers became the first chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Lindy Boggs Oath of Office
Corinne “Lindy” Boggs signed her oath of office on March 27, 1973, seven days after winning a special election to fill the Louisiana seat once held by her husband, Hale Boggs, the House Majority Leader, whose plane disappeared over Alaska the previous year. Lindy Boggs had been an effective legislative partner for her husband for nearly 30 years before taking the oath herself. A formidable negotiator and pioneering leader on the Hill, Boggs chaired the Joint Committee on Bicentennial Arrangements between 1975 and 1976. For many years she was the only woman for whom a room was named in the U.S. Capitol—the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room just off Statuary Hall.
A Committee Chair Huddle
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 met Senator Hattie Caraway of Arkansas in the halls of the U.S. Capitol, serendipitously captured in a photograph. What made this spur-of-the-moment meeting unique was that these three women simultaneously chaired committees—at the time, a congressional first.
Wash, Rinse, and Equal Treatment
In December 1967 Michigan Representative Martha Griffiths stepped in to save a teetering but beloved decades-old institution known as the House Beauty Shop. Griffiths retired from Congress in 1974, and Yvonne Burke of California succeeded her, becoming the first African-American woman to chair a congressional committee. What began as a makeover became a movement for equality on Capitol Hill.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory