In December 1967 Representative Martha Griffiths stepped in to save a teetering but beloved decades-old institution known as the House Beauty Shop. What began as a makeover became a movement for equality on Capitol Hill.
For more than 30 years, customers ranging from House secretaries to Members’ wives to the growing number of women Representatives had walked through the white swinging doors of the House Beauty Shop. Tucked away in the basement of the Longworth Office Building, a small staff of stylists fixed hair, applied makeup, and made last-minute touches to their clientele in a cramped space with worn marble floors and plaster peeling from the walls.
Mabel Z. Solomon, a local beautician, had established the shop in 1932. Business was brisk, and the shop was rumored to be lucrative, bringing in nearly $150,000 per year by the 1960s. With little oversight and no overhead costs—the House picked up the tab for “space, electricity, water, and even towels”—Solomon split the receipts paid to each staff member directly by the clients, taking half of whatever they earned.
Many congressional reformers in the late 1960s shared the impulse to modernize the House which, coupled with mounting concerns about the Beauty Shop’s management, led to calls for better supervision. In 1966, when health problems led to Solomon’s extended absences, Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts, Catherine May of Washington, and Griffiths began to investigate the Beauty Shop’s operations, much to Solomon’s chagrin. “We have no way of knowing how much she made for she kept the records,” Congresswoman May observed. Griffiths added that Solomon’s operation had never been subject to audit or oversight because Congressmen who controlled the most powerful House committees “never looked at the place at all.”
But as Griffiths and May readied a resolution for the House to buy or rent the Beauty Shop’s equipment, Solomon abruptly ended her 35-year association with the House by packing all of the hair dryers, sinks, and mirrors into five moving vans and spiriting them away over a weekend. “I walked in Monday morning for a 7:30 appointment and saw all the equipment gone,” recalled a surprised Edith Green of Oregon. Scheduled to speak later that morning, she “had no choice” but to hasten home to fetch a wig.
That’s when Griffiths, the Michigan Congresswoman and “Mother of the ERA,” swung into action. She ordered new equipment, consulted with cosmetologists, and took the shop’s calls. She also submitted a resolution to form a three-Member select committee—made up exclusively of Congresswomen—to oversee the shop’s operations and provide a $15,000 loan to cover initial expenses.
“We’ve got to have a beauty shop,” Speaker McCormack concurred in a statement that dripped with patriarchal approval. “Without it, there would be a revolution.” The overwhelmingly male House approved unanimously.
The select committee hired Betty Jane Oszust, a beautician from suburban Maryland, to manage the shop which was relocated to a larger space in the Cannon House Office Building in 1969. From 1968 to 1976, the staff more than doubled to 26 licensed operators who were paid 60 percent of their total receipts.
Business boomed, topping six figures annually. By September 1970, the $15,000 loan had been repaid to the U.S. Treasury. Griffiths, as chair of the select committee, proudly crowed that the Beauty Shop was the only House support office “operated by women” and was “the only thing around here operating in the black.”
Griffiths led the House Select Committee on the Beauty Shop from 1967 until she retired from Congress in December 1974. Her service as chairwoman spanned a period when women Members of Congress asserted themselves as advocates for women’s equality in every facet of national life—employment, access to credit, consumer affairs, education, and healthcare. And it’s within this context that the select committee made the national issue of workplace parity a local one—by advocating for equal treatment of the Beauty Shop stylists.
Because the Beauty Shop remained a quasi-official House entity, the staff did not receive benefits such as health insurance, life insurance, or a comprehensive retirement plan. In contrast, the staff of the House Barber Shop, who catered to Congressmen, got a benefits package.
At the start of the 95th Congress (1975–1977), Yvonne Brathwaite Burke of California succeeded Griffiths as chair of the select committee. Burke, one of the first African-American women elected to Congress, recalled that her own staff resisted her participation on the Beauty Shop Committee, telling her, “‘You can’t take that. Can you imagine going back to your district and saying, ‘I chair the Beauty Shop Committee?’” But she deflected those concerns, emphasizing her desire to advance the cause of women’s rights wherever she could.
In February 1977 Burke submitted H. Res. 315, calling for the select committee to be abolished and its jurisdiction transferred to the Committee on House Administration. Her proposal also brought the Beauty Shop employees under the purview of the House Employee Classification Act, giving them equal status to the House barbers and guaranteeing them health benefits, life insurance, and a retirement plan.
Later that May, the House Administration Committee’s Subcommittee on Services convened a hearing to discuss the resolution. Following Burke’s introductory remarks, Mo Udall of Arizona testified as a male patron who had “shed a few locks on the floor of the House Beauty Shop.” Udall supported Burke’s bill and the shop staff, although he also sheepishly and rather condescendingly admitted, “I am here because my wife said to be here.” His testimony contrasted the management of the profitable Beauty Shop with that of the House Barber Shop, which operated at a loss of nearly $200,000. Another witness, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm of New York, considered the treatment of Beauty Shop employees as the “last visible vestige of blatant discriminatory practices on Capitol Hill.” Manager Betty Jane Oszust rounded out the testimony noting that the shop had hundreds of “happy and satisfied customers”—and well-placed ones at that, “senators, congressmen, 14 of our 18 congresswomen, members’ wives, and a large number of Capitol Hill staff.” To bolster her claim, Oszust submitted a 27-page petition with the signatures of nearly 700 clients from around the capital city requesting passage of H. Res. 315.
Not every Congresswoman agreed with Burke’s resolution. During final debate on the House Floor, a remaining naysayer and staunch fiscal conservative, Millicent Fenwick of New Jersey, objected to “the idea that 28 beauty shop operators are going to be added to the 2,840,000 people who are already on the Federal payroll.” But Members from both parties (and both genders) voiced their support before the House passed H. Res. 315, 273 to 131. The Beauty Shop was folded into the House employee system via the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act for 1979.
Representative Burke proudly recalled her work with the House Beauty Shop years later.
The actions of Burke, Griffiths, and their women colleagues on the Select Committee on the Beauty Shop professionalized a House institution that served an extensive clientele, rescued it from extinction, and preserved it for subsequent generations of women Members, Capitol Hill staff, and the general public.
Speaker McCormack flippantly anticipated a minor uprising, but the actions of a handful of determined Congresswomen suggested that a wider revolution was well underway.
Sources: Congressional Record, 90th Cong., 1st sess. (6 December 1967); Congressional Record, 95th Cong., 1st sess. (1 November 1977); Yvonne Brathwaite Burke Interview, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, July 22, 2015; Hearing Before the House Subcommittee on Services of the Committee on House Administration, Beauty Shop Hearings, 95th Cong., 2nd sess. (1977); Hearing Before the House Subcommittee on Legislative Branch Appropriations of the Committee on Appropriations, Legislative Branch Appropriations for 1979, 95th Cong., 2nd sess. (1978); Atlanta Constitution, 2 March 1969; Chicago Tribune, 20 August 1974; New York Times, 7 December 1967; The Sun (Baltimore, Md.), 12 December 1967; Washington Post, 12 December 1967; 30 April 1971.
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