Forging Lasting Institutional Change

Beginning in 1992, women Members have gradually made up a larger percentage of Congress, from roughly 10 percent at the start of the 103rd Congress (1993–1995) to 24 percent in the 116th Congress (2019–2021). Part of this growth is because more women won election to state government positions, which traditionally have acted as significant stepping-stones to Congress. In 1992 women held 22 percent of statewide elective offices nationally; in 2019 that figure had risen to 29 percent. Women serving in state legislatures experienced nearly the same increase.31 Of the 271 women Members in this modern generation, roughly half held state elective office, most of whom served in the state legislature, before coming to Congress. Representative Eva M. Clayton of North Carolina saw her time in state government as an important step toward a seat in Congress, giving her “a feel for the interrelationship between state and federal government.” Among women Senators elected or appointed since 1977, one-in-three had come from the House.32

Women in the fourth generation were also the first to run for office after military careers that included combat experience.33 In a special election in June 1998, Representative Heather Wilson of New Mexico became the first woman veteran elected to Congress. In 2012 Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii became the first women combat veterans elected to the House. Martha McSally of Arizona, a former Air Force pilot and the first woman to fly in combat, joined them in 2014. That same year Joni Ernst of Iowa was elected the first woman veteran to serve in the Senate; Ernst also had combat service.

Lindy Boggs, Patricia Schroeder, Barbara Mikulski, and Millicent Fenwick/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay4_1_Boggs_room_1980_Cap_His_Soc.xml Image courtesy of the United States Capitol Historical Society (From left) Representatives Corinne Claiborne (Lindy) Boggs of Louisiana, Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, and Millicent Fenwick of New Jersey meet in the Congresswomen’s Suite in the Capitol—now known as the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room.
The 2018 congressional elections expanded the national security backgrounds of women Members, a number of whom served overseas in the military or in the intelligence agencies before entering politics.34 Historically, voters have viewed wartime military service as an important measure of a candidate for Congress, but women were largely excluded from combat operations until the twenty-first century. Often, women veterans running for office emphasized their commitment to public service on the campaign trail. Once in office, they used their public platforms to discuss issues women faced in the military, such as sexual harassment and discrimination.35

During this era, evolving ideas about gender roles in the workplace and in society created political space for many women Members to succeed. Yet, the belief that sexism would be eradicated proved overly optimistic; old ideas and antiquated stereotypes about gender persistently intruded into the congressional experience. As seniority continued to define the rhythms of Capitol Hill, women Members faced an uphill battle to change the political culture. Even in the 1990s, more than 70 years after the first women served in Congress, women Members continued to face subtle and outright discrimination from their peers. Condescending and patronizing remarks by male colleagues were still commonplace, particularly as the generational divide among Members exacerbated the differences in expectations about the roles of women in American politics. When first-term Representative Leslie L. Byrne of Virginia entered an elevator full of Members during the 103rd Congress, for instance, a Congressman remarked, “It sure is nice to have you ladies here. It spiffs up the place.”36

Outdated traditions placed restrictions on women that many felt had long been jettisoned from workplaces beyond Capitol Hill. When Sue Myrick of North Carolina became a Representative in 1995, she was surprised that the House discouraged women Members and staff from wearing slacks on the floor. She recalled that, by the 1990s, most women had already worked in positions outside of Congress without any such limitation.37 The struggle to define workplace attire became just one component of a larger effort to knock down artificial barriers that distinguished women Members from their male counterparts.

Shirley Chisholm, Gladys Spellman, and Yvonne Burke/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay4_8_ChisholmSpellmanBurke_HousePhotography.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office Shirley Anita Chisholm of New York, Gladys Noon Spellman of Maryland, and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke of California all supported the Congresswomen’s Caucus in its early days.
A similar battle emerged to improve the House gym and fitness facilities. Women contended with fierce resistance from men in Congress who endeavored to keep the gym exclusively all-male.38 In the 1980s, Congresswoman Barbara Boxer and Ohio Representatives Marcy Kaptur and Mary Rose Oakar led a protest by House women demanding equal access to the exercise facilities. Unhappy that the women’s gym lacked the modern 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.39 At one point, Connecticut Representative Nancy L. Johnson brought the chairman of the committee that oversaw the House gym to visit the women’s facilities to convince him of the need for new equipment. She recalled the chairman’s incredulous response: “I don’t know why you want machines,” he said. “You know, those machines only build muscles.” Johnson patiently explained that the physical advantages of exercise apply to both men and women.40 Beyond the health benefits, women Members also recognized that the House gym was a social space that men used to negotiate deals and build relationships in a less formal setting. The House finally integrated its gym facilities in the summer of 1985.41

While the old guard in the House did not go quietly, some women Members looked for ways to compromise without abandoning their principles. Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, for instance, possessed a unique ability to work with the less diplomatic Members as well as with House leadership, particularly Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. of Massachusetts. Ferraro was described as a “hard realist” and a “true pol,” an expert politician who used her web of connections to represent her district.42 As Ferraro’s colleague Republican Marge Roukema of New Jersey observed in 1984, Ferraro “takes a feminist stand but works only within the art of the possible.”43 Ferraro’s pragmatism struck a balance that worked for both Capitol Hill insiders and feminist activists beyond the Beltway. Betty Friedan, the founder of NOW, said Ferraro was “no cream puff; she’s a tough dame.”44

Other women in the 1990s followed a similarly pragmatic approach and sought to find a balance among competing interests to foster working relationships among lawmakers. “I worry about marginalizing women in the institution,” said freshman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut in 1992, surveying the less than three dozen women lawmakers on Capitol Hill at the time. “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.”45 DeLauro’s warning reflected the lawmaking process’s often necessary reality: that alliances and legislative partnerships could be key to success.46

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31“Women in Elective Office 2019,” Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, accessed 13 January 2020,

32“The Honorable Eva Clayton Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (15 May 2015): 8. The interview transcript is available online.

33Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Members with Military Service.”

34Jena McGregor, “More than 100 Women in Congress for the First Time, But Not Much Growth,” 5 November 2014, Washington Post: n.p.

35Karoun Demirjian, “Congress’s Four Female Combat Veterans are Speaking Up on Military Issues,” 2 August 2016, Washington Post: n.p.

36Rich Heidorn, “Capitol Of fense: No Longer Darlings, Congress’ Women Look Ahead,” 16 October 1994, Chicago Tribune: 5. See also “The Honorable Jill Lynette Long Thompson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (15 June 2017): 35–36. The interview transcript is available online.

37“The Honorable Sue Myrick Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (14 March 2016): 21. The interview transcript is available online; Karen Ball, “Congressional Women: Wave of Change Never Made It Through Capitol Walls,” 7 September 1993, Associated Press.

38Finkel, “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.

39Marjorie Hunter, “A Woman’s Place, They Say, Is in the Gym,” 16 June 1985, New York Times: 40.

40“The Honorable Nancy Lee Johnson Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (3 December 2015): 37–38. The interview transcript is available online.

41“The Honorable Susan Molinari Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (8 January 2016): 26. The interview transcript is available online.

42Marie Brenner, “This Lady is a Pol: Mondale Running Mate a Self-Made Professional,” 16 July 1984, Atlanta Constitution: 1C.

43“Woman in the News: Liberal Democrat from Queens,” 13 July 1984, New York Times: A1.

44“A Team Player, Can a Liberal from Archie Bunker Country Make a Contender of Walter Mondale?,” 23 July 1984, Newsweek: n.p.

45Finkel, “Women on the Verge of a Power Breakthrough.”

46For recent work on legislative effectiveness, see Craig Volden and Alan E. Wiseman, Legislative Effectiveness in the United States Congress: The Lawmakers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014): 90–98.