Despite having to consistently fight for equal standing, the women of this generation were the first to establish a strong foothold in traditional positions of power. Up until the modern era, women had remained on the margins of institutional leadership. By the late 1980s, fewer than 10 had chaired full congressional committees and just nine women held positions in party leadership (eight in the House and one in the Senate). Up to that time, the two highest-ranking women in the House had been Mary Rose Oakar as vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, and Lynn Martin as vice chair of the Republican Conference in the 99th and 100th Congresses (1985–1989). The highest-ranking woman in Senate leadership had been Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, whom the GOP elected chair of the Republican Conference from the 90th through 92nd Congresses (1967–1973).
As late as the spring of 1992, Congresswoman Schroeder observed that the wheels of gender equality on Capitol Hill turned slowly. “It’s not revolutionary, it’s evolutionary,” Schroeder said. “We get some appointments, we get some this, we get some that. But to think that women get any power positions, that we’ve become the bull elephants, that we’re the kahunas or whatever, well, we’re not.”81
The women who entered office in record numbers in the 1990s, however, soon accrued seniority in committees and broke into top leadership posts. Since 1949, when Connecticut Representative Chase Going Woodhouse became the first woman to serve in party leadership in the House as Secretary of the Democratic Caucus, women Members have held a total of 107 leadership positions—90 of which have occurred since 1977.
Congressional leadership positions—including the Speaker, the Democratic and Republican Leaders, and party Whips—had been the last exclusive preserve for men in Congress. But gradual changes in the final decade of the twentieth century altered the leadership makeup in ways that empowered women to fill influential roles shaping their parties’ agendas and legislative tactics. From the 103rd through 108th Congresses (1993–2005), more women moved into the leadership ranks. Representatives Susan Molinari, Jennifer Dunn of Washington, Tillie Kidd Fowler of Florida, and Deborah D. Pryce of Ohio served as vice chairs of the House Republican Conference from the 104th through 107th Congresses (1995–2003), respectively. In the 108th Congress (2003–2005), Pryce, who first won election to Congress in the “Year of the Woman,” became the highest-ranking woman in House GOP history at the time when she was elected chair of the Republican Conference. Washington Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers replicated this achievement for three terms starting in the 113th Congress, and Liz Cheney of Wyoming followed as Conference chair in the 116th Congress. On the House Democratic side, Mary Rose Oakar, Maxine Waters of California, and Barbara Kennelly also served as officers in their party caucus. In the Senate, Barbara Mikulski served as Secretary of the Democratic Caucus from 1995 to 2005. The fourth generation of women in Congress, especially in the House, also expanded the range of leadership responsibilities. In 1991, for example, Kennelly joined the Democrats’ vote counting operation as Chief Deputy Whip. Over the next two decades, seven other women Members held this position.82
These accomplishments were exceeded only by that of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who had succeeded Representative Sala Galante Burton of California in the House after Burton’s death in 1987. In 2001 Pelosi won the Democratic Caucus contest for Whip. A little more than a year later, when Representative Richard Andrew Gephardt of Missouri stepped down as Democratic Leader, Pelosi made national and international news when she overwhelmingly won her colleagues’ support to take his place, making her the highest-ranking woman in congressional history. In 2007, when Democrats gained control of the House, Pelosi was the first woman elected Speaker of the House and became the highest-ranking female officeholder in American history.83 She served as Speaker for two terms before Republicans recaptured the House. Pelosi stayed on as Democratic Leader, and a decade later she was re-elected Speaker when Democrats won control of the House in the 116th Congress.
As many of the women elected in the 1990s accrued seniority, they gained more important committee leadership positions. During the 104th Congress, Kansas Representative Jan Meyers chaired the House Small Business Committee and Connecticut Representative Nancy Johnson chaired the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. In 2007 Representative Nydia M. Velázquez of New York became the first woman in 10 years to lead a House committee when she was appointed chairwoman of the Small Business Committee. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida wielded the gavel for the Republican majority on the House Foreign Affairs Committee during the 112th Congress (2011–2013). In the next two Congresses, Candice S. Miller of Michigan chaired the House Administration Committee. And in the 115th Congress, Republicans named three women as committee chairs: Susan Brooks of Indiana on the Ethics Committee, Virginia Foxx of North Carolina on the Education and the Workforce Committee, and Diane Black of Tennessee on the Budget Committee.
In the 116th Congress, a historic seven Democratic women chaired committees in the House, including Nita M. Lowey of New York who became the first woman to chair the Appropriations Committee; in another first for the panel, her Republican colleague, Kay Granger of Texas, was named the Ranking Member. Alongside Lowey, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas chaired the Science, Space, and Technology Committee; Maxine Waters chaired the Financial Services Committee; Zoe Lofgren of California chaired the House Administration Committee; Nydia Velázquez returned as chair of Small Business; Kathy Castor of Florida chaired the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis; and following the untimely death of Elijah Eugene Cummings of Maryland in late 2019, Carolyn B. Maloney of New York was named chair of the Oversight and Reform Committee.
Where women made enormous strides in the House was in leading subcommittees, often a prerequisite for chairing a full committee. From the 80th Congress, the first Congress for which such records are readily accessible, to the 116th Congress, a total of 150 women chaired House subcommittees. While only two women—Representatives Margaret Chase Smith and Frances Payne Bolton of Ohio—chaired House subcommittees in the 80th Congress, by the 116th Congress, 37 women chaired subcommittees in the House.
Women in the Senate have also made leadership gains since 1977, but given that the Senate operates more by informal consensus the significance of committees and subcommittees are not as great as in the House.84 In 1995 Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum became the first woman in Senate history to head a major standing committee, the Labor and Human Resources Committee. Maine Senators Olympia J. Snowe (Small Business and Entrepreneurship) and Susan M. Collins (Governmental Affairs) chaired committees in the 108th and 109th Congresses (2003–2007). Like their colleagues in the House, women Senators have also recently led more prestigious committees: Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski became chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee in 2012, and the following year Washington’s Patty Murray was named chair of the Budget Committee. In the 116th Congress, two women chaired Senate committees: Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Susan Collins on the Special Committee on Aging.
81Finkel, “Women on the Verge of a Power Breakthrough.”
82Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women in Party Leadership Positions, 1949–Present.”
83Ronald M. Peters Jr., and Cindy Simon Rosenthal, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
84For more on the differences between the House and Senate, see Ross K. Baker, House & Senate, 4th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008).