In 1916 Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Her victory was made possible by generations of women’s voting rights activists—like Rankin herself—who organized grassroots campaigns, marched in the streets, and petitioned legislators across the country.
When Rankin took her seat in the House in April of 1917, women’s suffrage was not yet federal law, and would not be enshrined in the Constitution as the Nineteenth Amendment until 1920. And even then, racial discrimination prevented women of color from voting in the South until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Despite these many hurdles, women fought for—and won—their rightful place in politics and government. Women lawmakers often faced prejudice from fellow Members of Congress and the press. Their battles ranged from integrating and securing spaces for women on the Hill to chairing committees and winning party leadership positions. Women now occupy two of the three highest seats in government, including the Speakership and the Vice Presidency.
More than 100 years ago, Rankin knew her election was just the beginning. “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” she observed in 1917. “But I won’t be the last.”
For Women’s History Month, this Edition for Educators highlights women who have broken glass ceilings in the House of Representatives. This, of course, is by no means an exhaustive list. For more on the remarkable accomplishments of women in Congress, we encourage readers to visit our exhibit on Women in Congress.
Chase Going Woodhouse of Connecticut
Chase Going Woodhouse, an economics professor-turned-politician, served for two nonconsecutive terms, representing a competitive district spanning eastern Connecticut. She brought to the House a long history of advocacy for women in the workplace. Her expertise and party loyalty earned her a seat on the Banking and Commerce Committee as well as a single term as Secretary of the Democratic Caucus in the 81st Congress (1949–1951).
Deborah Pryce of Ohio
Deborah Pryce was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992 and served as her party’s freshman class president. Pryce rose through party leadership to become Republican Conference Chair a decade later, making her at the time the highest-ranking Republican woman in House history. In her oral history, Representative Pryce discussed her party’s efforts to elevate diverse voices within the conference in the early 1990s.
Nancy Pelosi of California
California Representative Nancy Pelosi, first elected to the House in 1987, is the highest-ranking woman in congressional history—having served as House Democratic Whip and House Democratic Leader, prior to first being elected Speaker of the House in 2007 and serving through 2011. She again won election to the Speakership in 2019 and was re-elected Speaker in January 2021. In the video below, Representative Allyson Y. Schwartz of Pennsylvania discusses the importance of a woman serving as Speaker of the House.
Since the First Congress (1789–1791), elected officers, such as the Clerk of the House, have taken up the increasingly complex administrative duties of the U.S. House of Representatives; until 1995, every single one of those elected officers had been men. In 1995, Robin H. Carle became the first woman to serve as an officer of the U.S. House of Representatives when she was elected Clerk. Since Carle’s election, three more women have served as Clerk of the House (Karen L. Haas, Lorraine C. Miller, and Cheryl L. Johnson). In the 117th Congress (2021–2023), more barriers fell when the first women to serve as Chaplain (Margaret Grun Kibben) and Chief Administrative Officer (Catherine Szpindor) were elected.
Mildred Reeves and the Quiet Revolution
Sometime around 1916 or 1917, the exact date isn’t clear, a woman in her early 20s from Washington, DC, named Mildred Reeves took a job in the office of Congressman Nicholas Longworth, an up-and-coming Republican legislator from Ohio. Within just two years or so, Reeves had gone from a minor role handling the mail to becoming one of Longworth’s chief aides, responsible for running his office—a position equivalent to today’s chief of staff.
Carlottia Scott: Challenge to the Institutional Structure
Carlottia Scott worked in the office of California Representative Ronald V. Dellums from 1979 to 1998, serving as his chief of staff starting in 1984, and later in the office of Representative Barbara Lee of California. She was one of the first African-American women to serve as chief of staff to two Members. In the audio clip below, Scott discusses the obstacles she faced in the House as an African American and a woman.
Mae Ella Nolan of California
As the first woman to succeed her late husband in Congress, Mae Ella Nolan set a precedent by championing the legislative agenda of her late spouse, John Ignatius Nolan. Congresswoman Nolan’s example influenced many future widows who would go on to serve in Congress. Nolan served for slightly more than two years, and she earned the distinction of being the first woman to head a congressional committee (the Committee on Expenditures in the Post Office Department).
Women Who Have Chaired Committees in the U.S. House, 1923–Present
Since Mae Ella Nolan made history in the 68th Congress (1923–1925), 25 women have chaired standing or select committees in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida
The first Latina elected to Congress in 1989, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida made history again when she was selected as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2011, the first woman to hold that post. In the oral history clip below, Ros-Lehtinen discusses how she earned the powerful seat and worked alongside Representative Tom Lantos, a fellow naturalized citizen, to make foreign policy decisions as head of the committee.
Women Members with Military Service
Heather Wilson of New Mexico became the first woman Member who served in the U.S. armed services elected to Congress in 1996. As more women become combat veterans, Congress has seen a prominent rise in women veterans in recent years.
“Catalyst for Change”: The 1972 Presidential Campaign of Representative Shirley Chisholm
Since its first publication in 1951, Jet magazine had been on the forefront covering news and issues important to its African-American readership. Widely popular for its commentary on politics, culture, and the lives of everyday people, Jet posed a question in June 1971 that New York’s Shirley Chisholm would soon prove prophetic: “Should a Black Politician Run for President?”
Women Members Who Served as Cabinet Members, United States Diplomats, and Vice President
To date, 16 Congresswomen have served as Foreign Ministers, Ambassadors, Cabinet Secretaries, and Vice President. On January 20, 2021, Kamala Devi Harris of California took the oath of office as the first woman, first Black-American, and first Asian-American Vice President of the United States.
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