The fourth generation of women in Congress was the first to establish a strong foothold in positions of power. Women had traditionally remained on the margins of institutional leadership. By the late 1980s, fewer than 10 had chaired full congressional committees and just eight House and Senate women had held positions in party leadership. Up to that time, the two highest-ranking women in the House were still considerably removed from the levers of power: Mary Rose Oakar was Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus, and Lynn Martin was 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 GOP peers elected Chair of the Republican Conference in the 90th through 92nd Congresses (1967–1973).
The women who entered office in record numbers in the 1990s soon accrued seniority in committees and catapulted into top leadership posts. This contradicted historical precedent, although, arguably, the most powerful and influential woman to head a committee was one of the first. Mary T. Norton chaired four House committees during the 1930s and 1940s: Labor, House Administration, District of Columbia, and Memorials. However, Norton’s experience was unusual, and, tellingly, she never held a top leadership job in the Democratic Party during her 25 years in the House. 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.”77
But gradual changes in the 1990s had begun to alter the leadership makeup in ways that portended greater involvement for women. Women angled for leadership positions and tested the last exclusive preserve for men in Congress. From the 103rd through 108th Congresses (1993–2005), 12 more women moved into the leadership ranks. Representatives Susan Molinari, Jennifer Dunn of Washington, Tillie Fowler of Florida, and Deborah Pryce 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 when she was elected Chair of the Republican Conference. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers replicated this feat during the 113th and 114th Congresses.
These accomplishments were exceeded only by that of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who had succeeded Representative Sala Burton of California in the House after her death in 1987. In 2001 Pelosi won the Democratic Caucus contest for Whip. A little more than a year later, when Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri left the Democratic Party’s top post, Pelosi overwhelmingly won her colleagues’ support in her bid to become House Democratic Leader, making her the highest-ranking woman in congressional history. This event garnered national and international attention. In 2007, when Democrats regained control of the House, Pelosi was the first woman elected Speaker of the House and became the highest-ranking female politician in American history.78
Representatives Pelosi and Pryce were on the leading edge of the spike in women elected to Congress. Pryce was elected to Congress at age 41 and attained her leadership post at 51. Pelosi arrived at the House at age 47 and was elected House Democratic Leader at 62. Behind these two leaders was a host of women who were elected in the latter 1990s. When elected, some of these women were 10 years younger than Pelosi and Pryce upon their arrival in Congress, giving them additional time to accrue tenure, seniority, and power.
As many of the women elected in the 1990s accrued seniority, they gained more important committee assignments. By the 104th Congress (1995–1997), Nancy Kassebaum became the first woman in Senate history to head a major standing committee, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, although Margaret Chase Smith had served as ranking minority member of the Armed Services Committee from 1967 to 1973. Maine Senators Olympia Snowe (Small Business) and Susan Collins (Governmental Affairs) chaired committees in the 108th and 109th Congresses (2003–2007). Women have increasingly taken hold of more influential Senate committee chairmanships. Senator Mikulski became chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee in 2012, and the following year Senator Murray was named chair of the Senate Budget Committee. A total of seven women Senators chaired committees in 2013, approximately one-third of the total number of panels in that chamber.
In the Senate, a total of 27 women have chaired subcommittees since the 80th Congress (1947–1949), with the vast majority holding these positions in the 21st century. The 106th Congress was the first in which three women served as subcommittee chairs in the Senate. By 2016, nine Senate subcommittee chairs were women. Three women—Margaret Chase Smith, Barbara Mikulski and Barbara Boxer—chaired subcommittees in both the House and the Senate.
In the House, women have found it more difficult to attain chairmanships on particularly influential committees. During the 104th Congress, Jan Meyers chaired the House Small Business Committee and Nancy Johnson chaired the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. In 2007 Representative Nydia Velazquez of New York was the first woman in 10 years to lead a House committee when she was appointed chairwoman of the Small Business Committee. Only eight women have chaired a limited number of House committees in the last decade, including the Committees on House Administration, Rules, and Standards of Official Conduct. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida wielded the gavel for the House Foreign Affairs Committee during the 112th Congress (2011–2013).
Where women made enormous strides in the House was in the chairmanships of subcommittees, a key prerequisite for chairing a full committee. From the 80th Congress, the first Congress for which such records are readily accessible, to the 109th Congress (2005–2007), a total of 44 women chaired House subcommittees. Only two women—Representatives Smith and Bolton—chaired House subcommittees in the 80th Congress. By the 109th Congress, nine women chaired subcommittees in the House. Over the next decade, however, 38 women chaired House subcommittees, with two Congresses representing the high-water mark for women as subcommittee chairs: 22 subcommittees were chaired by women during the 110th Congress and 24 were during the 111th Congress (2009–2011). Such opportunities opened up wider paths toward greater positions of power in the House committee system.
The fourth generation of women in Congress has transformed the institution to a greater degree than any previous generation. By September 2016, the women of the 114th Congress made up 19.4 percent of the total membership, an all-time high. These 84 Representatives and 20 Senators, along with four nonvoting Delegates in the House, were the largest contingent of women in any Congress in American history. The fourth generation represents a snapshot of significant progress in a long period of slow change. Women Members have accrued seniority and gained access to leadership, committees, campaign funds, and even the Speaker’s chair. There also has been a relative decline in the importance of familial connections and outright gender discrimination directed toward women.
While women have not yet achieved political parity with men, they have dramatically altered the political culture within the electorate and within Congress. “In previous years, when I have run for office, I always had to overcome being a woman,” said Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2002. “All I’ve ever wanted was an equal chance to make my case, and I think we’re getting to that point—and that’s the victory.”79
Hutchinson’s experience on the campaign trail has not been universal, however. The cumulative everyday experiences of women provide a more accurate, although unscientific, means of assessing the places of women in Congress. In an institution inherently tied to procedure and order, gender equality remains a practice rather than a rule. Reflecting on the century of women in Congress demonstrates the way women have used a range of strategies to consistently reinforce their places as Members deserving of equal access to the halls of power.
77Finkel, “Women on the Verge of a Power Breakthrough.”
78Ronald M. Peters, Jr., and Cindy Simon Rosenthal, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
79Whittington, “Women See Gains Slowing.”