Assembling, Amplifying, and Ascending: Modern Trends Among Women in Congress, 1977–2020
Early in the afternoon on January 4, 2007, Nancy Pelosi of California walked down the center aisle of the U.S. House of Representatives and climbed the few steps to the top of the rostrum amid a roar of applause. Moments earlier, she had been elected the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House. It was a landmark moment in American history, an inflection point which “brought us closer to the ideal of equality that is America’s heritage and America’s hope,” she said in her opening speech. “It is a moment for which we have waited for over 200 years. Never losing faith, we waited through the many years of struggle to achieve our rights. But women were not just waiting; women were working. Never losing faith, we worked to redeem the promise of America that all men and women are created equal.”1
Pelosi’s election as Speaker came 90 years after Jeannette Rankin took the oath as the first woman in Congress. But Pelosi’s decision to invoke the Declaration of Independence in her remarks harkened back even further in American history to the mid-nineteenth century and the very founding of the women’s rights movement. At the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights, the abolitionist and suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton authored the movement’s founding document in pursuit of universal equality. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Stanton wrote, “that all men and women are created equal.”
A century and a half may have passed since Seneca Falls, but the continued push for equity and influence on Capitol Hill characterized much of the agenda for this fourth and most recent group of women in Congress. Unlike the previous three generations, however, the women who entered office starting in 1977 rarely lacked allies. Two hundred and seventy-one women served during this era—almost three times the total number of women up to that point (95). Moreover, the number of women holding seats simultaneously in any one Congress grew by a factor of six during this period: In the 95th Congress (1977–1979), 21 women served together; meanwhile, 131 women took office when the 116th Congress (2019–2021) opened in January 2019.
These groundbreaking transformations in Congress built on years of incremental change. The social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s opened new possibilities for women in American politics and enabled those who aspired to public service to overcome gender-based political attacks and discrimination. With more professional opportunities, a new generation of women gained experience at the federal, state, and local levels of government. Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley, for instance, was a trailblazing journalist who once covered Baltimore’s rough-and-tumble city docks and served as chair of the Federal Maritime Commission before winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1984. Bentley found that her long 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 in the House, “but they also didn’t shut the door.”2
The experiences of women in Congress during this era also provide an important frame of reference for understanding the experiences of women across America. In the 1960s and 1970s, the push to end racial discrimination and the fight for women’s rights moved to the center of national politics. By honing their message and cultivating political action groups to support female candidates, women accrued more power on Capitol Hill. With that influence, Congresswomen brought sustained national attention to important issues and passed laws that affected women’s health, education, workplace rights, and families. Over time, women Members gained seniority, won important leadership and committee positions, and authored legislation affecting every facet of American life, including transportation and infrastructure, military affairs, international relations, economics, and social policy.
The general election of 1992, called the “Year of the Woman,” was a pivotal moment during this era, and effectively doubled the number of women in Congress overnight. That success also had far-reaching effects on the way women were perceived in the institution. One of the newcomers, Lynn Schenk of California, aptly summarized the changes: “After years in the trenches,” she said, “more women are finally moving up to the front lines.”3
In the two-and-a-half decades which followed, women knocked down barriers seemingly at every turn. Notably, the women elected during this period have helped create the most diverse Congresses in history. They have chaired powerful committees in the House including Appropriations, Budget, Financial Services, and Foreign Affairs, and led hundreds of subcommittees. Congresswomen in this era also expanded the ranks of party leadership, helping to create and fill key roles in a complex and demanding institution.
With her first election as Speaker, Pelosi cracked what she called “the marble ceiling. For our daughters and our granddaughters,” she said, “the sky is the limit. Anything is possible for them.”4 As of 2020, however, no daughter has ever followed her mother in Congress, and no granddaughter has ever followed her grandmother. But it is certainly just a matter of time. In the twenty-first century, women continue to be elected in numbers that demonstrate they will shape both the future of American politics and the future of the U.S. Congress.
1Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 1st sess. (4 January 2007): 4–5. For video of Opening Day of the 110th Congress, see the first two hours from “House Session,” C-SPAN Congressional Chronicle video, 9:53:06, 4 January 2007, https://www.c-span.org/congress/?date=2007-01-04.
2“The Honorable Helen Delich Bentley Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (21 March 2016): 20. The interview transcript is available online.
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): 5.