In 1917 The Suffragist, a magazine dedicated to women’s voting rights, profiled Jeannette Rankin on the eve of her swearing in, four months after her stunning election to the House. “I may be the first woman member of Congress,” Rankin famously said. “But I won’t be the last.”85
From our perspective a century later, Rankin’s prediction may seem understated and perhaps even obvious, but nothing was ever guaranteed. Starting in 1789, 64 Congresses—128 years—had come and gone before Rankin took the Oath of Office in the spring of 1917. Thousands of Congressmen had served on hundreds of committees before Rankin’s victory. Thousands of laws had shaped and reshaped the experiences of millions of everyday people from Puerto Rico to Maine, from the Carolinas to the Dakotas, from California to the Philippines. But American women never simply sat by while the male-dominated political world spun around them. Throughout it all, women of all backgrounds defined and redefined what was possible, refusing to accept the status quo that had left America’s political system inherently unequal.
Rankin’s election in 1916 may have broken one barrier, but many more remained. The old guard on Capitol Hill seemed to have no intention of voluntarily sharing power, but one-by-one successive generations of women in Congress overturned antiquated traditions and modernized the institution’s folkways. Some women Members confronted these obstacles directly, while others worked behind the scenes. But regardless of how they overcame the stubborn misogyny in Congress, women recorded significant legislative victories and assumed new leadership responsibilities during the next six decades.
The start of the fourth and most recent generation of women in Congress sent what had been a process of gradual advancement into overdrive. In a sweeping sense, the women who served from 1977 to 2020 have transformed the institution to a greater degree than any previous generation. While women have not yet achieved political parity with men, they have dramatically altered the political culture within the electorate and within Congress. From the committee system to party leadership, women in this generation attained the heights of power in Congress that had always been the exclusive domain of the most politically connected men in America.
One hundred years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the 116th Congress opened with the largest number of women Members to date. Across the country in 2018, a record-breaking 476 women filed to run for the House, 234 women—an all-time high—won their party primary, and 106 women Members were elected, the largest number in history. That year, a record 53 women also filed to run for the Senate, 23 captured their party primary, and 14 won election to Capitol Hill. The 116th Congress was also the most diverse in American history and included the first Muslim women Members and the first Native-American women Members.86
Even in our era, however, in an institution inherently tied to procedure and order, gender equality often seems like a practice rather than a rule. Men continue to far outnumber women on Capitol Hill. As of early 2020, 18 states have never sent a woman to the Senate; four states have never elected a woman to the House; and of these, one (Vermont) has yet to elect a woman to either chamber.87
But barriers continue to fall, and the field continues to level. “In previous years, when I have run for office, I always had to overcome being a woman,” Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison said in 2002. “All I’ve ever wanted was an equal chance to make my case, and I think we’re getting to that point—and that’s the victory.”88
The push for equality continues. More than one hundred years after Rankin, the women serving in the 116th Congress have built on the inheritance of their predecessors while setting powerful legacies of their own—legacies future generations of women in Congress will turn to for guidance and inspiration.
85Winifred Mallon, “An Impression of Jeannette Rankin,” 31 March 1917, The Suffragist: 8.
86“2018 Summary of Women Candidates,” CAWP Election Watch, 14 November 2018, https://cawp.rutgers.edu/potential-candidate-summary-2018#house; Samantha Cooney, “Here Are Some of the Women Who Made History in the Midterm Elections,” 19 November 2018, Time, https://time.com/5323592/2018-elections-women-history-records/. Quotation from Winifred Mallon, “An Impression of Jeannette Rankin,” 31 March 1917, The Suffragist: 8.
87Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Representatives and Senators by State and Territory, 1917–Present.” As of January 1, 2020, the following states have yet to send a woman to the Senate: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, and Wyoming. The four states that have yet to elect a woman to the House are: Alaska, Mississippi, North Dakota, and Vermont.
88Whittington, “Women See Gains Slowing.”