After gaining experience in state legislatures and on the campaign trail, women Members often entered Congress with significant policy credentials. This created opportunities for women on powerful congressional committees and facilitated their ability to draft legislation and influence debate.71
Unlike the Congresswomen of previous eras, Members of this period had access to every committee in both the House and Senate. Although women in the House continued to serve on committees such as Veterans’ Affairs and Education and Labor, women were no longer confined to these panels and pursued seats on a diverse array of committees. Women may have remained a minority of the total House, but at times they accounted for a significant portion of the membership on specific committees.72
The most common committee assignments in the House reflected the changing role of women in American society in the latter part of the twentieth century, particularly as more women entered the workforce. Compared to earlier generations, women elected after 1976 served on committees with jurisdiction over finance and business more frequently. For instance, then Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski became the first woman to gain a seat on the influential Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee in 1977, and through 2019 roughly three dozen women followed her in the House. Committees dealing with public works, transportation, and infrastructure—traditional panels for Representatives seeking federal funding for local projects—were among the most popular assignments for women in this era.73
Women also won seats on Congress’s most powerful and exclusive committees. Twenty-seven women who entered the House between 1977 and the start of the 116th Congress in 2019 served on the Appropriations Committee, 54 served on the Armed Services Committee, 19 women won seats on the Ways and Means Committee, and 18 sat on the Rules Committee.
The ability to secure better committee posts was perhaps most dramatic in the Senate, where, between 1981 and 2020, the number of women serving simultaneously in the chamber increased from two to 26. This generation of Senators established several firsts. Most notably, Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas served on four committees to which women previously had not been assigned: Foreign Relations (1977), Environment and Public Works (1977), Budget (1979), and Select Intelligence (1979). In 1977 Maryon Pittman Allen of Alabama, a widow who served a brief portion of her late husband’s term, was the first woman assigned to the influential Senate Judiciary Committee. The first women to serve full terms on that panel were Dianne Feinstein of California and Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois. Moseley-Braun was also the first woman to serve on the powerful Senate Finance Committee (1993). As recently as 1997, Patty Murray of Washington became the first woman to serve on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. As in the House, the most common committee assignments for women in the Senate—Appropriations; Armed Services; Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Budget; Commerce; Energy and Natural Resources; Foreign Relations; and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions—reflected the reality that more women had joined the workforce, served in the military, and were experts in foreign policy.
71Rosenthal, Women Transforming Congress: 325.
72For instance, by the 116th Congress (2019–2021), 19 women served on the Appropriations Committee (36 percent of its membership), and 18 women held seats on the Education and Labor Committee (36 percent). The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, also changed the way Congress did business. A Select Committee on Homeland Security was created in the 108th Congress and was later made permanent in the 109th Congress. By the 116th Congress, this panel had 11 women Members (35 percent).
73Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Members’ Committee Assignments (Standing, Joint, Select) in the U.S. House, 1917–Present.”