New Patterns: The Growth in Political Experience

Since 1977 one of the most pronounced changes among women serving in Congress is how they arrived on Capitol Hill. Unlike earlier generations, the “widow’s mandate” virtually ceased being a factor for women candidates during the modern era. In fact, less than 5 percent of the women in this period succeeded their late spouses, and those who did had prominent and successful careers of their own that distinguished them from the legacies of their husbands.5

Women who won seats in Congress during this period often had extensive prior political experience. Many served as state legislators and as elected or appointed state administrators. Some came to the House after serving as city or county executives, commissioners, or municipal judges. Still others served at the federal level in executive branch departments and agencies. Women Senators also had extensive careers at the federal level; many had first served in the House, while others had executive branch experience. While some Senators came straight from a state office, only a handful came to Washington directly from local public office.6

Congresswomen in this era were also highly educated, even more so than their predecessors. Like an increasing number of Americans beginning in the 1970s, most women Members earned four-year degrees, and many held advanced or professional degrees.7 In addition, the average age at which women were first elected or appointed to Congress has, in more recent election cycles, more closely mirrored demographic trends among Members of Congress overall.8 The average age for women entering Congress between 1977 and 2019 was 50.4 years.9 The youngest woman elected to Congress in this period was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York who was 29 when she won election in 2018. Ocasio-Cortez surpassed Elise M. Stefanik of New York who was 30 when she won in 2014. The oldest woman to enter Congress during this period was 77-year-old Donna Shalala of Florida who won election to her first term in 2018; she had earlier served as Secretary of Health and Human Services during the William J. Clinton administration.

Women Senators have coffee/tiles/non-collection/E/Essay4_3_senatorscoffee_LC-1.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Women Senators meet over coffee in 1997. From left to right: Patty Murray of Washington, Susan M. Collins of Maine, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, and Dianne Feinstein of California.
Like the third generation of Congresswomen, the Members of this fourth era, especially those with young children, often faced unfair questions about the impact of congressional service on their families—questions their male colleagues rarely had to address about the structure of the modern congressional workweek, the necessity of regular trips to the district, and increasing demands on Members’ time. Members with children often had two choices: move their families to Washington, DC, and travel back home to the district for official business; or leave their families back home in their districts, and travel to the Capitol when Congress was in session. In either scenario, Members were separated from their families frequently.10

When running for office, Representative Constance A. Morella of Maryland recalled that she was routinely asked, “How can you do that with a family?”11 With a seat on the powerful Rules Committee and her spot in GOP leadership, Representative Lynn Martin of Illinois became an influential House Member in the 1980s. But family concerns often competed with political responsibilities. “The first time I was in Ronald Reagan’s office, I called Caroline, my 9-year-old, and I said, ‘I have just been in with President Ronald Reagan,’” Martin recalled. Her daughter replied, “‘Are you going to be here tomorrow for the carpool?’ And I said, ‘I have just been …’ and she said, ‘I heard you. Are you going to be here tomorrow for the carpool?’ I mean, oh my Lord: ‘I’m deciding the fate of the Western World and you’re worrying about a carpool?’ And the answer was, ‘Yes, I am.’”12

By 1998 a growing number of women Members had children under the age of 18.13 Like many Americans, they were working mothers caring for children and striking a balance between career and family, and they brought these everyday concerns to the legislative branch. In 1973 Representative Yvonne Brathwaite Burke of California became the first Congresswoman to give birth while in office. It would be more than 20 years before another sitting Member gave birth. Since 1995, however, Congresswomen having children while in office has become more commonplace.14 Congress has also recently taken steps to make it easier for working parents—Members and staff—to succeed, installing lactation rooms for nursing mothers and expanding the childcare services on the House side.15

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5The women who followed their late husbands during this era are Representatives Beverly B. Byron of Maryland (1979), Jean Spencer Ashbrook of Ohio (1981), Sala Galante Burton of California (1983), Catherine S. Long of Louisiana (1985), Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri (1996), Mary Bono of California (1998), Lois Capps of California (1998), Doris O. Matsui of California (2005); Senators Maryon Pittman Allen of Alabama (1978), Muriel Humphrey of Minnesota (1978), Jocelyn Birch Burdick of North Dakota (1991), and Jean Carnahan of Missouri (2001).

6Information on the precongressional political experience of Members can be found in the online Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present,

7According to the Congressional Research Service, 94 percent of all House Members and 100 percent of all Senators had bachelor’s degrees. See Jennifer E. Manning, “Membership of the 114th Congress: A Prof ile,” Report R43869, 22 January 2015, Congressional Research Service: 5. By contrast, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015 only 58.9 percent of Americans had at least some college education. Camille L. Ryan and Kurt Bauman, “Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015,” U.S. Census Bureau Current Population Reports, March 2016,

8Beatrice Jin, “Congress’s Incoming Class Is Younger, Bluer, and more Diverse than Ever,” 7 January 2019, Politico,

9Based on the age of Members (Representatives, Senators, and Territorial Delegates) when they first took the Oath of Office. Member birth dates are taken from the online Biographical Directory,

10Wendy Koch, “Women Take on Career, Kids and Congress,” 17 November 1998, USA Today: 17A.

11“The Honorable Constance A. Morella Oral History Interview,” Of f ice of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (16 June 2015): 8. The interview transcript is available online.

12David Finkel, “Women on the Verge of a Power Breakthrough,” 10 May 1992, Washington Post Magazine: W15.

13Koch, “Women Take on Career, Kids and Congress.”

14Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Familial Connections of Women Representatives and Senators in Congress: Women Who Gave Birth While Serving in Congress.”

15Ashley R. Parker, “For Capitol’s Nursing Mothers, an Escape From Politics,” 1 January 2011, New York Times,; Susan Davis, “Lawmakers Hope New House Day Care Will Keep Staff on Capitol Hill,” 1 January 2019, NPR, f-on-capitol-hill.