Forging Lasting Institutional Change
For all the media attention paid to the “Year of the Woman,” it was but a part of the larger pattern of more women winning elective office. A number of women expressed exasperation with the media focus that hyped the sensational news story, but largely ignored more enduring influences. “The year of the woman in retrospect was a small gain, but it was the start of what was a big gain,” Senator Boxer observed a decade later. “I don’t even think it was the year of the woman then, but it started the trend of electing more women.” Others felt the label diminished women’s achievements and reinforced perceptions that their impacts on Congress were temporary. As Senator Mikulski said, “Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.”54
The 1992 election was both a practical and symbolic political achievement for women in the United States. Women Members were still in a distinct minority, although for the first time in congressional history they accounted for more than 10 percent of the total membership. Subsequent growth was slower, though steady, as women Members built seniority and solidified their presence in both chambers. On average since 1992, 12 new women have been elected to Congress each election cycle, while incumbency rates have remained near or above 90 percent.55
Ultimately, however, the “Year of the Woman” spawned expectations that women candidates in subsequent elections could not realistically meet. In fact, six of the women elected in 1992 were unsuccessful candidates for reelection two years later. Instead of a narrow focus on one outlier election, examining long-term electoral patterns is a more useful indicator of the changing position of women in Congress.
The trend that culminated in the 1990s had begun decades earlier in the state legislatures, where women began to accumulate political experience. The first Congresswoman with elective experience in a state legislature was Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy of Kansas. For decades McCarthy proved to be the exception to the rule. Between her election to a single term in Congress in 1932 and 1970, when greater numbers of women began to serve in state capitols, hardly more than a dozen Congresswomen had held seats in state legislatures or statewide elective offices. It was only in the last 30 years of the 20th century that women made significant gains in state legislatures and, subsequently, the U.S. Congress. For example, in 1970 women held 301 seats (about 4 percent) of all the seats in state legislatures nationwide. In 1993 January 1,524 women (20.5 percent) served in state legislatures nationally. In 2016 the number of women in state legislatures had increased to 1,814 (24.5 percent) of the 7,383 state legislators in the United States.56
Men have traditionally built their political careers at the local and state levels, and these experiences were invaluable for women when campaigning for higher offices. Representative Eva Clayton of North Carolina saw her time in state government as an important stepping stone toward a seat in Congress, giving her “a feel for the interrelationship between state and federal government.”57 This experience granted women candidates a way around the familial connections that had largely defined the backgrounds of women seeking congressional offices.
Women in the fourth generation were also the first to run for offices after military careers that included combat service. In a special election in June 1998, Representative Heather Wilson of New Mexico was the first woman veteran elected to Congress. In 2012 Representative Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii became the first female combat veterans elected to the House, and Representative Martha McSally of Arizona joined them in 2014. Also in 2014 Joni Ernst of Iowa was elected to the Senate and became the first woman veteran to serve in that chamber; she also had combat service.58 Historically, wartime military service has been an important measure of a candidate for Congress, and women were largely excluded from combat operations until the 21st century. Women veterans running for office emphasized their credibility and commitment to public service while on the campaign trail. Once in office, they used their public platforms to discuss issues facing women in the military, such as sexual harassment and discrimination.59
Changing ideas about gender roles in the workplace and society created political space for many women Members to flourish. Yet, the belief that sexism would be eradicated proved to be overly optimistic, as old ideas and stereotypes about gender persistently intruded into the congressional experience. Women were not about to change the political culture overnight, especially not on seniority-based Capitol Hill. Even in the 1990s, the legacy of more than 70 years of traditions and expectations shaped the experience of women in the fourth generation as they continued to face subtle discrimination even from their peers. Once when freshman Representative Leslie Byrne of Virginia entered an elevator full of Members, a Congressman remarked, “It sure is nice to have you ladies here. It spiffs up the place.”60
Condescending and patronizing remarks by male colleagues were still commonplace, particularly as the generational divide exacerbated the differences in expectations about the roles of women in American politics. Women were also confronted with restrictions that many felt had long been jettisoned from workplaces outside of Capitol Hill. When she was elected in 1995 Representative Sue Myrick of North Carolina was surprised that some Members discouraged women Members and staffers from wearing slacks on the House Floor. She recalled that, by the 1990s, most women had already worked in positions outside of Congress without any such limitation.61
The struggle to define proper attire in the workplace became one component of an effort to knock down artificial barriers distinguishing women Members from their male counterparts. A similar battle emerged to improve the House gym and fitness facilities. Women contended with fierce resistance from men in Congress who were determined to keep the gym exclusively for men until the House finally integrated the gym facilities in the summer of 1985.62 Along with Representatives Barbara Boxer and Marcy Kaptur, Mary Rose Oakar of Ohio led a protest by House women demanding equal access to these facilities. Unhappy that the women’s gym lacked the modern exercise equipment, swimming pool, and basketball court accessible to the male Members, the three lawmakers made their pitch in a song before a meeting of the House Democratic Whips.63
At one point, Representative Nancy Johnson brought the Congressman in charge of the committee that oversaw the House gym to visit the women’s facilities and hoped to convince him of the need for new equipment. After making her case, she recalled the Congressman’s incredulous response: “I don’t know why you want machines. You know, those machines only build muscles.” Johnson patiently explained that the physical advantages of exercise apply to both men and women. Beyond the health benefits, women Members recognized that the House gym was a social space that men used for negotiating deals and building relationships in a less formal setting.65
Despite the need to consistently struggle for equal standing in Congress, the larger cultural shift in American society brought more women into politics and made possible a tactical change in the legislative approach of many women Members. Unlike the third generation of women in Congress, the fourth generation often chose to confront the institution less directly and work toward gaining equal standing with their peers. Whereas Bella Abzug’s generation worked against the congressional establishment to breach gender barriers, many women in the fourth generation worked for change from within the power structure. Women in the 1980s and early 1990s who moved into leadership posts did so largely by working within traditional boundaries, a time-honored approach that extended back to Mary Norton of New Jersey and Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts in the first generation of Congresswomen (1917–1934). The careers of Lynn Martin and Barbara Kennelly of Connecticut illustrate this tendency: Martin served as Vice Chair of the GOP Conference; Kennelly served as a Democratic Chief Deputy Whip and was elected Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus.
Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro also possessed an ability to work with the House leadership, particularly Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill of Massachusetts, in a way that made her male colleagues comfortable. She was described as a “hard realist” and a “true pol,” an expert politician who used her web of connections within her party to successfully represent her district.66 As Ferraro’s colleague Marge Roukema observed, Ferraro “takes a feminist stand but works only within the art of the possible.”67 The Congresswoman’s pragmatism struck a balance that was pleasing to both Capitol Hill insiders and feminists. Betty Friedan, founder of NOW, judged that Ferraro was “no cream puff; she’s a tough dame.”68
Other women who were influential in their parties followed a similarly pragmatic approach, looking to find a balance between solidarity with fellow women colleagues and constructing productive working relationships that could lead to legislative achievements. “I worry about marginalizing women in the institution,” said freshman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut in 1992. “It’s a very competitive place, and what you need to do is build coalitions, and since there are 29 women who don’t think alike, you build coalitions among women, and you build coalitions among men. If you sit there and say, ‘I’m a woman, we’re in the minority here,’ then you’re never going to get anywhere in this body.” 69
DeLauro’s warning against isolation reflected her recognition of the requirements of the legislative process. She also hinted at the complexity of women’s politics in America, not a new development, to be sure, although the range of political beliefs among women Members was becoming more apparent in the 1990s. Women Members approached issues from a diversity of political perspectives. This was increasingly evident as the number of women grew in the 1990s, particularly after the “Republican Revolution” of 1994. The GOP gained control of the House for the first time in 40 years and ran on a national platform that featured a centerpiece campaign document called the “Contract with America.” Led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Republicans passed through the House large parts of their contract, which promised to cut back welfare and entitlement programs, shrink the federal bureaucracy, and reform House procedures. These efforts resulted in sharp ideological debates that were exacerbated by a shutdown of the federal government in late 1995. In 1998 the partisanship in the closely divided Congress reached a new level of rancor as the House impeached President Clinton based on his testimony about his extramarital relationship with a White House intern. However, the Senate failed to gain the two-thirds majority necessary to remove the President from office.
The partisan divide among women Members in this era—a microcosm of deep divisions in American politics and the Congress—shaped the relationship between women and the legislative process. Stark ideological disputes made it clear that women in Congress are not monolithic. Like all Members, their motivations and political positions vary based on their backgrounds, districts, ages, and experiences. Later political battles over issues such as reproductive rights, welfare reform, and the federal deficit leavened expectations that women would unite across party lines, subordinate ideology to pragmatism, and increase their power.
With positions on key committees that allocated federal money, a caucus to educate and inform Members and the public, and public focus shifting to domestic policy, women in Congress spearheaded a number of successful efforts to pass legislation affecting women both in the home and in the workplace. In 1978 the Congresswomen’s Caucus rallied support for passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The measure outlawed employers from discriminating against women on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions and required employers to provide health insurance for pregnant employees. Two measures—the Family Support Act of 1988 and the Child Support Recovery Act of 1992—implemented stricter procedures for enforcing child support and stiffened the penalties for delinquent parents. The Family Support Act of 1988 also extended childcare and medical benefits for families that had recently stopped receiving government assistance. In 1988 Congress passed the Women’s Business Ownership Act, which created a program targeting service-related businesses owned by women and helped guarantee commercial bank loans of up to $50,000. This legislation also established the National Women’s Business Council to monitor federal, state, and local programs aimed at helping women-owned businesses.
During the 1990s, the growing number of women in Congress increased the potential to pass influential legislation that had long been marginalized in American politics. One of the most heralded pieces of legislation initiated by women in Congress—notably, Patricia Schroeder and Marge Roukema—was the Family and Medical Leave Act. Passed by Congress in February 1993, this measure required employers to grant employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for a chronic health problem, for the birth or adoption of a child, or for the care of a family member with a serious illness. Some Congresswomen observed afterward that men were quick to take credit for an issue that women had pushed initially and consistently. At the presidential bill-signing ceremony, only male Senators and Representatives shared the stage with President Clinton and Vice President Albert (Al) Gore. Schroeder was seated in the second row of the audience and complained that Congresswomen often received no acknowledgment for their contributions to legislation. “Often you see women start the issue, educate on the issue, fight for the issue, and then when it becomes fashionable, men push us aside,” Schroeder observed, “and they get away with it.”70
In 1994, with the help of Senator Barbara Boxer, who had spearheaded the effort as a House Member in the early 1990s, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) passed as part of a major omnibus crime bill. VAWA allocated $1.6 billion to prevent domestic abuse and other violent crimes against women, creating an Office on Violence Against Women in the U.S. Justice Department, disbursing funds for victims of abuse, and educating the public about a scourge that had been missing from the national dialogue. Representative Molinari noted that this legislation gave women Members “an opportunity to give voice to those people who for so long felt like they had absolutely no voice.”71 After the VAWA was renewed in 2000 and 2005, a heated debate emerged over proposed controversial changes to the law. In 2013 Congress passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which expanded the reach of the law’s protections, privacy safeguards, and services provided to victims regardless of geographic location, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. It also extended coverage to Native Americans on reservations and immigrants.72
Through the efforts of the CCWI and the bipartisan work of leading Democratic and Republican women, major legislation was passed that altered research into diseases affecting women. In 1993 Congress passed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act, which created the Office of Research on Women’s Health at NIH. This legislation appropriated funding for research on breast cancer, ovarian cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, and other disorders affecting women. Funding increased over the course of the 1990s, and informational campaigns raised public awareness. For example, in 1997 Congress passed the Stamp Out Breast Cancer Act, which originally was authored by Representative Vic Fazio of California. As a Democrat, Fazio was part of the minority in the 105th Congress (1997–1999). The bill was eventually cosponsored by Republican Representative Molinari, who worked to gather her party’s support and won recognition for pushing the legislation over the finish line. The measure authorized the creation of a first-class postage stamp that raised millions of dollars for additional NIH programs.73
In 2009 Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to extend the statute of limitations on filing equal-pay lawsuits. Introduced in the Senate by Barbara Mikulski, this act amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and several other pieces of legislation designed to ensure equal protection for women in the workplace. The Supreme Court had considered the case of Lilly Ledbetter, an employee at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama who had received lower wages than men in the same position. The Justices threw out her complaint and ruled that pay disparities must be challenged in court within 180 days. The Ledbetter bill expanded the window of opportunity for women to pursue lawsuits for monetary compensation by linking the start of the 180-day period to the last discriminatory paycheck rather than the first. It also included provisions that restricted the terms by which employers could justify unequal pay for women such as education, training, or experience, which were established by the 1963 Equal Pay Act.74
In addition to concerns related to women’s health, safety, and equal treatment in the workplace, women in the fourth generation sought positions on committees and developed legislative interests that were not previously defined as “women’s issues.” Representative Barbara Kennelly, for example, was determined to gain access to influential House committees. In 1983 she joined the Ways and Means Committee to have a greater impact on tax policy. “I had left a little boy in grammar school in the sixth grade to come to Congress and I wanted to make it worth it,” Kennelly recalled.75 She also pursued a seat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Initially, House Speaker O’Neill of Massachusetts refused to appoint her to this prestigious committee, asking “Barbara, are you never satisfied?” Although she was already on Ways and Means, she made an impassioned argument that a woman’s voice should be part of the Intelligence Committee’s debates on important national security challenges and global affairs. After a prolonged campaign for the spot, she became the first woman named to the committee in 1987 during the Speakership of Jim Wright of Texas.76 In the years following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, California Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Jane Harman, and Anna Eshoo, as well as Heather Wilson of New Mexico and Jo Ann Davis of Virginia, all held positions on the Intelligence Committee and participated in bipartisan coalitions crafting the national security response to the attacks.
Like each Member of Congress, women Representatives and Senators were interested in legislation that addressed the needs of their constituencies. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana was involved in the development and implementation of energy policy, as the oil industry was a significant employer in her state. Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York was one of the most prominent voices promoting gun control legislation after her husband was murdered and her son critically injured in a mass shooting in 1993. By serving on powerful committees and promoting diverse legislative agendas, many women Members became leading voices on such national issues.
54Barbara Mikulski et al. Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate (New York: Morrow, 2000): 46—50.
55Norman Ornstein et al., “Vital Statistics on Congress,” 7 April 2014, www.brookings.edu/vitalstats (accessed 13 October 2016). In the House, the percentage of Members seeking reelection who were successful reached a high of 98.3 percent in 1988 and 1998, and remained well over 90 percent since 1977. Only three times did this percentage dip below 90 percent—one of those instances was in 2012, when 89.9 percent of incumbents were reelected. In the Senate, the percentage of incumbents reelected has remained above 75 percent since 1982, reaching a high of 96.9 percent in 1990. In 2012, 91.3 percent of incumbent Senators were reelected.
56See “Women in State Legislatures 2016,” Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University, http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu (accessed 28 September 2016). Of the top 10 states with the highest percentages of women legislators in 2016, six were western states: Colorado (42.0 percent), Arizona (35.6 percent), Washington (34.0 percent), Nevada (31.7 percent), Montana (31.3 percent), and Oregon (31.1 percent). Vermont (41.1 percent), Minnesota (33.3 percent), Illinois (32.8 percent), and Maryland (31.9 percent) round out the list.
57“The Honorable Eva Clayton Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 15 May 2015, http://history.house.gov/Oral-History/Women/Representative-Clayton/.
58Jena McGregor, “More than 100 Women in Congress for the First Time, But Not Much Growth,” 5 November 2014, Washington Post: n.p.
59Karoun Demirjian, “Congress’s Four Female Combat Veterans are Speaking Up on Military Issues,” 2 August 2016, Washington Post: n.p.
60Rich Heidorn, “Capitol Offense: No Longer Darlings, Congress’ Women Look Ahead,” Chicago Tribune, 16 October 1994: Woman News, 5.
61“The Honorable Sue Myrick Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 14 March 2016, http://history.house.gov/Oral-History/Women/Representative-Myrick/; Karen Ball, “Congressional Women: Wave of Change Never Made It Through Capitol Walls,” 7 September 1993, Associated Press.
62Finkel, “Women on the Verge of a Power Breakthrough;” Steven V. Roberts, “It’s No Longer an All-Him Gym,” 25 July 1985, New York Times: A20.
63Marjorie Hunter, “A Woman’s Place, They Say, Is in the Gym,” 16 June 1985, New York Times: 40.
64“The Honorable Nancy Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 3 December 2015, http://history.house.gov/Oral-History/Women/Representative-NJohnson/.
65“The Honorable Susan Molinari Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 8 January 2016, http://history.house.gov/Oral-History/Women/Representative-Molinari/.
66Marie Brenner, “This Lady is a Pol: Mondale Running Mate a Self-Made Professional,” 16 July 1984, The Atlanta Constitution: 1C.
67“Woman in the News: Liberal Democrat from Queens,” 13 July 1984, New York Times: A1.
68“A Team Player, Can a Liberal from Archie Bunker Country Make a Contender of Walter Mondale?” 23 July 1984, Newsweek: n.p.
69Finkel, “Women on the Verge of a Power Breakthrough.”
70Joan A. Lowy, Pat Schroeder: A Woman in the House (Albuquerque NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2003): 100.
72Ashley Parker, “House Renews Violence Against Women Measure,” 1 March 2013, New York Times: A13.
74Robert Pear, “House Passes 2 Measures on Job Bias,” 10 January 2009, New York Times: A13.
75“The Honorable Barbara Kennelly Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 9 September 2015, http://history.house.gov/Oral-History/Women/Representative-Kennelly/.