Armed with key committee assignments, an influential issues caucus, and a general policy shift away from the Cold War to domestic matters, women in Congress spearheaded several successful efforts to pass legislation affecting women both in the home and in the workplace. In 1978 the Congresswomen’s Caucus rallied support for passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which outlawed employers from discriminating against women based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions and required them to provide health insurance for pregnant employees. Two measures—the Family Support Act of 1988 and the Child Support Recovery Act of 1992—implemented stricter procedures for enforcing child support and stiffened the penalties for delinquent parents. The Family Support Act of 1988 also extended childcare and medical benefits for families that had recently stopped receiving government assistance. In 1988 Congress passed the Women’s Business Ownership Act, which created a program targeting service-related businesses owned by women and helped guarantee commercial bank loans of up to $50,000. This legislation also established the National Women’s Business Council to monitor federal, state, and local programs aimed at helping women-owned businesses.
Women Members approached issues from a variety of political perspectives. This was increasingly evident as the number of women grew in the 1990s, particularly after the “Republican Revolution” of 1994. That year, the GOP gained control of the House for the first time in 40 years using a national platform that featured a centerpiece campaign document called the “Contract with America.” The partisan divide among women Members in this era—a microcosm of deep divisions in American politics and in Congress—shaped the relationship between women and the legislative process. Stark ideological disputes reinforced a long-established reality: Women in Congress were not monolithic. Like all Members, their motivations and political positions vary based on their backgrounds, districts, ages, and experiences. Later political battles over issues such as reproductive rights, welfare reform, and the federal deficit tempered expectations that women would unite across party lines and subordinate ideology to pragmatism.
But during the 1990s, the growing number of women in Congress also increased the potential to pass influential legislation that had long been marginalized in American politics. One of the most heralded pieces of legislation initiated by women in Congress—notably, the result of the bipartisan partnership of Pat Schroeder and Marge Roukema—was the Family and Medical Leave Act. Passed by Congress in February 1993, the law required employers to grant employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for a chronic health problem, for the birth or adoption of a child, or for the care of a family member with a serious illness. Some Congresswomen observed afterward that men quickly took credit for the bill’s success. At the presidential bill signing ceremony, only male Senators and Representatives shared the stage with President Bill Clinton and Vice President Albert Arnold Gore Jr. Schroeder was seated in the second row of the audience and pointed out that Congresswomen often received no acknowledgment for their contributions to legislation. “Often you see women start the issue, educate on the issue, fight for the issue, and then when it becomes fashionable, men push us aside,” Schroeder observed, “and they get away with it.”74
In 1994, with the help of Senator Barbara Boxer, who had led the effort as a House Member in the early 1990s, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) passed as part of a major omnibus crime bill. VAWA allocated $1.6 billion to prevent domestic abuse and other violent crimes against women, creating an Office on Violence Against Women in the Justice Department, disbursing funds for victims of abuse, and educating the public about a scourge that had been missing from the national dialogue. New York Representative Susan Molinari noted that VAWA gave women Members “an opportunity to give voice to those people who for so long felt like they had absolutely no voice.”75 After Congress renewed VAWA in 2000 and 2005, a heated debate emerged in 2013 over proposed changes to the law. That year Congress passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which expanded the reach of the law’s protections, privacy safeguards, and services provided to victims regardless of geographic location, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. It also extended coverage to Native Americans on reservations and to immigrants.76
Through the efforts of the CCWI and the bipartisan work of leading Democratic and Republican women, Congress passed major legislation that dealt with research into diseases and health concerns affecting women. In 1993 Congress approved the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Revitalization Act, which created the Office of Research on Women’s Health at NIH. The legislation also appropriated funding for research on breast cancer, ovarian cancer, sexually transmitted infections, and other medical diagnoses affecting women. Funding increased over the course of the 1990s, and informational campaigns raised public awareness. For example, in 1997 Congress passed the Stamp Out Breast Cancer Act, authored by Democratic Representative Victor Herbert Fazio Jr. of California. As part of the minority in the 105th Congress (1997–1999), Fazio could only do so much. But the bill was eventually cosponsored by Republican Susan Molinari, who gathered her party’s support and won recognition for pushing the legislation over the finish line. The measure authorized the creation of a first-class postage stamp that raised millions of dollars for additional NIH programs.77
In 2009 Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to extend the statute of limitations on filing equal pay lawsuits. Introduced in the Senate by Barbara Mikulski, the law amended the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and several other pieces of legislation designed to ensure equal protection for women in the workplace. The Supreme Court had considered the case of Lilly Ledbetter, an employee at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama who had received lower wages than men in the same position. The Justices threw out her complaint and ruled that pay disparities must be challenged in court within 180 days. The Ledbetter bill expanded the window of opportunity for women to pursue lawsuits for monetary compensation by linking the start of the 180-day period to the last discriminatory paycheck rather than to the first. It also included provisions that restricted the terms by which employers could justify unequal pay for women such as education, training, or experience, which were established by the 1963 Equal Pay Act.78
Alongside concerns related to women’s health, safety, and equal treatment in the workplace, women in the fourth generation sought positions on committees and developed legislative expertise on policies that were not previously considered “women’s issues.” In 1983, for example, Connecticut Representative Barbara Kennelly was determined to join the powerful Ways and Means Committee to influence tax policy. “I had left a little boy in grammar school in the sixth grade to come to Congress and I wanted to make it worth it,” Kennelly recalled.79 After she won a seat on Ways and Means, she also pursued a seat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. At first, House Speaker Tip O’Neill refused to appoint her to the prestigious committee, asking “Barbara, are you never satisfied?” But she made an impassioned argument that a woman’s voice should be part of the Intelligence Committee’s debates on important national security challenges and global affairs. After a prolonged campaign for the spot, she became the first woman named to the committee in 1987 during the Speakership of Jim Wright of Texas.80 In the years following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, California Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Jane L. Harman, and Anna G. Eshoo, as well as Jo Ann Davis of Virginia and Heather Wilson, all held positions on the Intelligence Committee and participated in bipartisan coalitions that crafted the national security response to the attacks.
Like every Member of Congress, women Representatives and Senators were interested in legislation that addressed the specific needs of their individual constituencies. Given that the oil industry was a significant employer in her state, Senator Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana was involved in the development and implementation of energy policy. Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York was one of the most prominent voices promoting gun control legislation after her husband was murdered and her son critically injured in a mass shooting in 1993. By serving on powerful committees and promoting diverse legislative agendas, many women Members became leading voices on similar national issues.
74Joan A. Lowy, Pat Schroeder: A Woman in the House (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003): 100.
75“Molinari Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 53.
76Ashley Parker, “House Renews Violence Against Women Measure,” 1 March 2013, New York Times: A13.
77“Molinari Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 28–29.
78Robert Pear, “House Passes 2 Measures on Job Bias,” 10 January 2009, New York Times: A13.
79“The Honorable Barbara Bailey Kennelly Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (9 September 2015): 22. The interview transcript is available online.
80“Kennelly Oral History Interview” Office of the Historian: 28–29.