Assembling, Amplifying, and Ascending: Recent Trends Among Women in Congress, 1977-2017

The sweeping social and cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s significantly opened up new possibilities for women in American politics. While women who aspired to public service remained susceptible to political attacks and discrimination based on gender, they also found more opportunities to build professional careers and bolster their political résumés at the federal, state, and local levels before mounting a congressional campaign. Congresswoman Helen Bentley, a trailblazing journalist whose beat was once Baltimore’s rough-and-tumble docks, also served as chair of the Federal Maritime Commission before winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1984. Bentley found that her years of experience in the male-dominated maritime industry proved to be helpful when she arrived on Capitol Hill. “They didn’t roll out the red carpet,” Bentley recalled of her male colleagues, “but they also didn’t shut the door.”1 The fourth generation of women in Congress (1977–2017) took advantage of this opening to secure the most dramatic gains for women in Congress in American history.

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 Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, Barbara 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 Reading Room.
Women historically account for only a small fraction—about 2.6 percent—of the more than 12,000 individuals who have served in the U.S. Congress since 1789, but the fourth wave of women to enter Congress is by far the largest and most diverse group. The 218 women elected between 1977 and 2016 account for nearly 70 percent of all the women who have served in the history of Congress. Based on growth principally in the House of Representatives, each of the 18 Congresses since 1981 has had a record number of women Members.2

In 1977 15 Congresswomen formed a Congresswomen’s Caucus, later called the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues (CCWI), to publicize legislative initiatives that were important to women. By honing their message and by cultivating political action groups to support female candidates, women became more powerful on Capitol Hill. Most important, as the numbers of Congresswomen increased and their legislative interests expanded, women accrued the seniority and influence to advance into the ranks of leadership and have a significant impact as lawmakers.

Congress offers an important frame of reference for the larger stories of women’s changing roles in U.S. society during this era. The legacy of the struggles for women’s rights in the 1960s and 1970s placed women’s issues at the center of the national political debate. For the first time, Congresswomen had the ability to bring sustained national attention to women’s issues, which they used to pass laws that affected women’s health, education, and concerns in the workplace as well as family lives. Over time, women Members attained important positions in Congress and authored legislation affecting every facet of American life: transportation and infrastructure, military affairs, international relations, economics, and social policy.

A pivotal moment was the general election of 1992, dubbed the “Year of the Woman.” The arrival of 27 new women in Congress resulted from the confluence of historic circumstances that has not recurred since. Yet, the doubling of the number of women in Congress virtually overnight had far-reaching effects on the way women were perceived in the institution. As one of the group of newcomers, Lynn Schenk of San Diego aptly summarized the changes. “After years in the trenches,” Schenk observed, “more women are finally moving up to the front lines.”3

The 1992 election set a high bar for numerical gains that has yet to be matched, though it signaled a quarter century of steady achievements for women in Congress. Particularly unprecedented was progress in terms of seniority and leadership in the institution. Seniority correlated with a stark increase in the number of women serving as full committee chairs and subcommittee chairs in the House and the Senate. By the end of the 106th Congress (1999–2001), only nine women in the Senate and 48 in the House had held these influential positions in the entire history of women in Congress, the vast majority as subcommittee chairs. Since 2001, 30 women in the Senate and 51 in the House have served as committee chairs and subcommittee chairs.

Women also seized opportunities to move into party leadership. In 2001 Representative Nancy Pelosi of California became the highest-ranking woman ever in either of the major U.S. political parties when her colleagues in the Democratic Caucus elected her Whip. In 2002 she was elected as Democratic Leader, the first woman to hold a party’s top post.

In 2003 and 2013, respectively, Representatives Deborah Pryce of Ohio and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington were elected as chairs of the Republican Conference. They remain the two highest-ranking women in House GOP history. Pelosi shattered the final institutional barriers that women faced in the House—what she described as “the marble ceiling”— when she became the first woman elected Speaker of the House at the beginning of the 110th Congress (2007–2009).4

Women continue to be elected to Congress in numbers that suggest they will play an even greater role in the years ahead. Since 2007, 83 women have been elected to Congress, which accounts for more than one-quarter of all women Members in the history of the legislative branch. Their time in Congress was markedly different from that of their female predecessors.

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1“The Honorable Helen Bentley Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 21 March 2015.

2In two instances, those gains briefly plateaued during this period. In the 99th and 100th Congresses (1985–1989) a then-record number of 25 women served in the House and Senate combined; and in the 111th and 112th Congresses (2009–2013) a then-record number of 90 women served in both chambers combined.

3Barry M. Horstman, “Women Poised to Make Big Political Gains,” 24 August 1992. Los Angeles Times: n.p.

4Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 1st sess. (4 January 2007): 2-5.