Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

“Somebody Was Going to Be the First”

JET Magazine/tiles/non-collection/1/11-23-1972-JET-2017_032_000-001.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The November 30, 1972, issue of Jet Magazine celebrated the election of three new Black lawmakers to the next Congress, including Yvonne Burke (lower left).
During the 1970s, amid the women’s liberation movement, women across the country fought for equal rights and for a louder voice in the decision-making process on a wide range of domestic and international issues. Women Members elected during this decade often brought feminist ideals and a new style of governing to the House that had a significant effect on the institution. Capitol Hill also became more diverse, as women of color—Members and staff alike—won election to and took jobs in the House, changing a powerful workplace which had been dominated by White men since its inception. The stories of three women from this era—Representative Yvonne Brathwaite Burke of California; Felda Looper, who served as a House Page; and Arva Marie Johnson, the first African-American woman officer on the Capitol Police—illustrate how women won and took advantage of new opportunities, leaving their mark on the Capitol as history-making pathbreakers.

January 3, 1973—Congresswoman Yvonne Burke

Unlike many first-term Representatives, Yvonne Burke of California came to Congress as a nationally known lawmaker. Greatly influenced by and active in the civil rights movement, Burke used politics to push for racial equality. She was the first Black woman elected to the California general assembly, the first African-American woman elected to Congress from California, and the first Member of Congress to give birth and receive maternity leave.

Yvonne Brathwaite Burke/tiles/non-collection/1/11-23-Burke-Opening-Day-pa2011_10_0024b.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This photo of new Congresswoman Yvonne Burke was taken soon after Opening Day of the 93rd Congress (1973–1975).
Sworn into the House on January 3, 1973, Burke joined Shirley Chisholm of New York and Barbara Jordan of Texas as the only Black women in Congress. In 1968, Chisholm became the first Black woman ever elected to Congress, and Jordan was the first African-American woman to serve on the Judiciary Committee and the first Black woman elected from the South. Because so few women served in Congress at the time—there were only 14 at the beginning of the 93rd Congress (1973–1975)—women lawmakers, but especially Burke, Chisholm, and Jordan, faced intense scrutiny. “There was a real curiosity about me being from the West,” Burke noted, “just like there was a huge curiosity when Shirley Chisholm was first elected. She became internationally known as the first African-American woman in Congress, and Barbara Jordan, who then became involved in the Judiciary Committee and had a high visibility. So everyone watched every move that we made.”

The press frequently reported on Burke’s time in Congress, publishing articles with detailed descriptions of her clothes, hair, and social engagements. The national attention intensified when Burke announced her pregnancy in the spring of 1973. “There were people who were critical, but there were people who were very supportive, and then there was curiosity,” the California Representative mused. “How could a woman at my age have a baby and, at the same time, be a Member of Congress?”

Starting with her service in the California state assembly, Burke shattered one glass ceiling after another during her time in public service. Named to the influential Appropriations Committee during her second term, Burke became the first Black woman and only the second African-American legislator to serve on the panel. During the second session of the 94th Congress (1976–1977), she made history again as the first woman to chair the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Despite the reluctance by some Members to have a woman lead the CBC, Burke reflected on how her ability to raise funds won her the job.

The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, U.S. Representative of California Interview recorded July 22, 2015 Transcript (PDF)

Known for her quiet determination, direct approach, and ability to bring people together, Burke preferred to build consensus on legislation behind the scenes during her three House terms. Burke took “great pride” in her many accomplishments and, although she was not interested in the celebrity aspect of her career, learned to leverage her fame to highlight local and national issues to help women and Black Americans during her time in Congress.

May 14, 1973—House Page Felda Looper

During Burke’s first year in the House, other changes rippled through the institution involving congressional staff which sparked new opportunities for women. On a family trip to Washington, DC, in 1966, 11-year-old Felda Looper learned that for more than a century boys and young men from across America had served as Pages in the House, delivering documents and running errands for Members. While visiting the Capitol, Looper questioned her Oklahoma Representative, Democratic Whip Carl Albert, as to why girls could not also serve as Pages. Not satisfied with Albert’s response to investigate the matter, Looper resolved to protest the rule that barred young women from working as Pages. After a lengthy letter-writing campaign to Albert, who became Speaker of the House in 1971, Looper, then a high school senior, received notice that she would make history as the first female Page in the House.

Felda Looper, Page, U.S. House of Representatives Interview recorded January 25, 2010 Transcript (PDF)

Appointed on May 14, 1973, Looper began her Page tenure a week later on May 21, 1973. Her historic appointment received widespread media coverage. During Looper’s first day on the job she answered questions from reporters, posed for pictures, met her fellow Pages, and toured the Capitol. As a Page, she performed the same tasks as her male colleagues, primarily running errands for Members of Congress. “When I got to Washington, people were sending me news clips from the newspapers all across the country,” Looper recalled. “And that’s when it hit me how the media makes it so public that everybody was aware of it, and it was a buzz because it was a first. And people did pay attention to it. And it was also, in the time, and this was 35 years ago, where women were making firsts. The whole opportunity for women was different.”

Looper’s relentless pursuit to join the Page program opened the door for other young women to follow in her footsteps. “Somebody was going to be the first. It was going to happen, and I was psyched that it was me,” Looper observed.

October 15, 1974—Officer Marie Johnson

A little more than a year after Felda Looper became the House’s first female Page, Arva Marie Johnson left her own mark on congressional history. Born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, Johnson moved to Washington, DC, after graduating high school in 1968. When a family member working on the Hill told Johnson the Capitol Police wanted to hire women officers, she jumped at the opportunity and applied. On October 15, 1974, Marie Johnson made history as the first uniformed woman officer for the Capitol Police and the first Black woman to join the force.

Arva Marie Johnson/tiles/non-collection/1/11-23-oh_johnson_marie_receiving_certificate.xml Image courtesy of Arva Marie Johnson, provided by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives Upon her retirement in 2007, the Capitol Police Force honored Arva Marie Johnson’s (left) 32 years of service.

As one of only four women on the force in 1974, Johnson recalled some of the challenges she and her female colleagues faced. With locker rooms designed only for male officers, the women on the force used makeshift partitions before the Capitol Police built a permanent facility to accommodate them. Johnson also recalled that since the uniforms were tailored specifically for men, most female officers found the fit uncomfortable with pants that were too long and too wide.

When Johnson joined the force, she felt the need to prove she belonged. Some of the resistance she faced was rooted in gender stereotypes. “Well, some of them would say,” Johnson recalled, “‘Why would you want to be here? Wouldn’t you rather be at home with your child, cooking?’ I said, ‘No.’ ‘I don’t think you’d be able to handle this job.’ I said, ‘I think I can.’ So I had to really prove myself. And then as time went on, they saw that I wanted to do the job, and I could do the job, and I was willing to stand by them and do it. So it all changed. It was good, and they started to accept me.”

Like Representative Burke, Johnson broke barriers for both gender and race. Reflecting on her accomplishments years later, Johnson remembered being surprised to learn about one of her historic milestones. “They asked all of us to get together to take our picture,” she noted, “so they could have a picture of their first females on the Capitol Police Department, and that was when I first realized that I was the first African-American female, which didn’t faze me at all because as time went by I didn’t really think about it.”

Arva Marie Johnson, Officer, U.S. Capitol Police Department Interview recorded March 1, 2007 Transcript (PDF)

Throughout her 32 years on the force, Johnson, thankful and proud to serve as a Capitol Police officer, wanted to maintain life as an “ordinary person.” Despite her humbleness and reluctance to take credit for her accomplishments, Johnson’s quiet dedication and resolve paved the way for other women and people of color to work at the Capitol in jobs previously unattainable because of gender and racial discrimination.