On old floor plans, there is a spot in the Capitol that no longer exists—the Ladies’ Reception Room. Nineteenth century illustrations show lovely, well-dressed young women chatting amiably with Representatives, almost as if at an evening party. The reality of the Ladies’ Reception Room was very different. Activists, professional lobbyists, and despairing widows filled the sofas and chairs, urging their Members of Congress to action. They were so successful that in short order the Chamber became a battleground over women’s “proper” role in politics, a clash that ultimately doomed the space.
The House created the Ladies’ Reception Room in 1867 to accommodate women visiting the Capitol to meet with Representatives. The Civil War had ripped the nation’s social fabric. In its aftermath, the Capitol teemed with desperate constituents, looking for help: employment, a soldier’s pension, better hospital conditions, or relief from some governmental wrong. Social convention dictated that women, newly thrust into the public sphere by the war, needed a separate space to congregate, hence the “beautifully furnished and carpeted” room, conveniently near the House Chamber. A woman seeking an audience made her way through the Capitol to the reception room and handed her calling card to a messenger, who in turn gave it to a Page for delivery to the Member’s desk in the Chamber. (Members did not have separate office space until 1908.) Then it was a matter of waiting and hoping the Representative she sought would emerge from the Chamber to meet her.
The reception room was a hard-working space. On a single day in 1869, the Doorkeeper groaned that 311 women sent their cards into the Chamber. Women lobbied on behalf of reforms as well as their personal concerns. Suffrage, African Americans’ civil rights, temperance, and equal wages formed the basis of discussions in the Ladies’ Reception Room. Other women who were frequent visitors were paid lobbyists for railroad conglomerates, tariff interests, or patronage appointments. The reception room itself was close to both the Ladies’ Gallery and the Chamber doors, so when calling cards produced no results, a petitioner could dash up to the Gallery overlooking the floor of the Chamber, ascertain if a Representative was at his desk, and then return downstairs and wait to buttonhole him when he appeared.
The press reported increasing anxiety about lobbying in general, and the Ladies’ Reception Room in particular, disturbed at women finding the levers of power in the Capitol. Reporters suggested it was a den of sin where innocent Representatives were “tickled and titillated by the sparkling badinage.” Newspaper illustrators depicted the Reception Room as “The Seraglio,” a dim, secluded bower filled with “bevies of the most beautiful women of the day . . . binding to their girdles the wills and impulses of members.” The additional presence of virtuous widows and “frightfully ugly” reformers received only a cursory nod.
With the perception of feminine wiles so close to the Chamber being reported in such breathless prose to constituents back home, the House sought to put a little distance between itself and the Ladies’ Reception Room. In 1879, the House moved the room to a brighter, more public space, essentially a loud foyer around the corner. To make matters worse, two years later the House installed a bulky clanking elevator that protruded into the room.
The drumbeat of women’s rights grew over the next decade and with it the backlash against women’s public roles and the denizens of the Ladies’ Reception Room. News journal illustrations continued to show it as a spot where shameless young women wrapped innocent old men around their little fingers. The accompanying articles were even harsher. Reporters applauded Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed when he “resorted to a radical cure of the evil” in 1890. He banished the Ladies’ Reception Room to a cramped corner of Statuary Hall, a stop on the tourist circuit far removed from official business.
The Ladies’ Reception Room seemed destined for irrelevance. Some newspapers crowed that “the woman as a lobbyist is a failure in Washington in this day and generation.” But while the room might be expelled, women in congressional politics would not be easily swept aside. One reporter who otherwise condemned women as “female cranks” and “gallery girls” knew the genie was out of the bottle: “They wander at will about the lobbies. The experiment of caging them behind the cold marble figures of statuary hall was unsuccessful.” He was more prescient than he knew. In less than 20 years, suffrage lobbyist Jeannette Rankin would prove just how unsuccessful the experiment was, when she walked past the Ladies’ Reception Room and into the House Chamber in 1917 as the first woman elected to Congress.
Sources: Margaret Susan Thompson, The “Spider Web:” Congress and Lobbying in the Age of Grant (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985); John B. Ellis, The Sights and Secrets of the National Capital (Chicago: Jones, Junkin, & Co., 1869); Mary Clemmer, Ten Years in Washington. (Cincinnati: Queen City Publishing Company, 1874); Harper’s Weekly, Volume 10, Issue 25, October 25, 1890; Detroit Free Press, March 3, 1867.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the election and swearing-in of the first woman in Congress, we will publish a series of blog posts about the early women Members and the changing role of women in the institution. Check back each month through 2017 to see the latest posts.