Up until the mid-1970s, a core group of long-tenured women Members energetically opposed the creation of a women’s caucus in the House. This older generation of lawmakers, who pre-dated the women’s rights era activists, feared that the formation of a caucus dedicated to women’s interests would increase tensions with male colleagues and undo the decades of work it took to break into the House’s power structure.
The generational divide between long-serving Members and their new colleagues was on full display when freshman lawmaker Pat Schroeder first met Leonor K. Sullivan, the most prominent opponent of the caucus. “I’m Pat Schroeder, I’m new here, and you’re my dean, what should I call you?” Schroeder asked. “My name is Mrs. John Sullivan,” replied the Missouri Congresswoman. “Yes, I know that,” Schroeder said. “What should I call you?” The reply was formal and cool: “You can call me by my name. My name is Mrs. John Sullivan.” The encounter convinced Schroeder, “we’re not going to have a lot of bonding here.”47
When Sullivan retired in 1977, momentum for women Members to organize developed rapidly. Her departure, along with the retirements of veterans such as Edith Starrett Green of Oregon and Julia Butler Hansen of Washington, removed the greatest roadblock to forming a caucus.
Organizers acted quickly by following the lead of other more established caucuses, such as the Democratic Study Group and the Republican Wednesday Group.48Margaret M. Heckler of Massachusetts, who for years had been whipping support for the creation of a caucus, and Elizabeth Holtzman of New York who shared Heckler’s enthusiasm “to make it bipartisan from the get-go, and also, to try to involve all the Congresswomen,” took the lead.49 Schroeder remembered years later that Heckler had “decided this needed to be done” and hosted a dinner at her house that helped launch the caucus.50 Other prominent participants included Shirley Anita Chisholm of New York and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. The Congresswomen’s Caucus convened for its first official meeting on April 19, 1977. Its primary purposes were to, one, inform Members about women’s issues; two, identify and create women’s legislation; three, track floor action and support caucus legislation by testifying before committees; and, four, monitor federal initiatives affecting women.51Yvonne Burke of California, one of the founding Members, felt that the creation of the caucus proved to “women of every ethnicity and every political party that there was a place for women in the process.”52
Heckler and Holtzman served as the caucus’s first co-chairs, establishing the bipartisan credentials the group would retain. Fifteen women joined the caucus. Afraid their constituents would disapprove, three women—Marilyn Lloyd of Tennessee, Marjorie Sewell Holt of Maryland, and Virginia Dodd Smith of Nebraska—initially declined membership, but later joined the caucus. The group also received a boost from important noncongressional entities and won the enthusiastic endorsement of advocacy groups like NOW and the National Women’s Political Caucus, which had long sought a forum to convey policy ideas to women Members.
The Congresswomen’s Caucus waged its first battle in 1977, obtaining an extension for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The joint resolution proposing the amendment passed Congress in March 1972, but the authorizing legislation put a seven-year time limit on the ERA’s ratification and incorporation into the Constitution. By the end of 1973, 30 states had ratified it. Five more states approved the amendment between 1974 and 1976. In the meantime, four of the states that had initially approved the ERA indicated they planned to rescind their support. Thus, by 1977 the ERA was still short of the 38 states it needed for ratification before its expiration in 1979.
In October 1977, Holtzman introduced legislation to obtain a seven-year extension for the ERA, and the caucus gathered support for the measure. The struggle to extend the ERA deadline was an important moment in the organizational development of the caucus. It required Holtzman and others to mobilize a vote-counting apparatus that simply did not exist prior to the founding of the caucus. Holtzman recalled that the Congresswomen’s Caucus set up an effective whip operation that employed a range of strategies to compile data on the upcoming ERA extension vote. Caucus Members leaned on their personal relationships with other lawmakers and created a computer program to track information. The extension “never would have gotten through the House if it hadn’t been for the wonderful work of the Congresswomen—Republican Congresswomen, Democratic Congresswomen, conservative, liberal, going to their friends, organizing this carefully,” Holtzman remembered in an oral history years later.53 The organization also benefited from the support of allies such as labor unions and NOW.54 In 1978 the House voted 230 to 189 to extend the deadline for ratification three years to June 30, 1982. The Senate concurred, 60 to 36, capping a bipartisan victory for the caucus.
From the beginning, however, there were concerns among Members that the Congresswomen’s Caucus did not represent the interests of every woman in Congress. Representative Holtzman envisioned the organization as a space where Members on different sides of the aisle could come together and “feel politically comfortable in joining with people of different political views.”55 She thought that Members could strike a delicate balance by avoiding controversial issues in the interest of promoting common goals.56
Deliberately avoiding the fault lines of American politics proved to be more difficult than Holtzman imagined. The fate of the ERA demonstrated this in stark terms. Many states refused to ratify the amendment after sustained opposition from Phyllis Schlafly, a lawyer and conservative activist. Schlafly’s STOP ERA campaign mobilized conservative women concerned that the amendment might undermine what they considered to be traditional family relationships.57 As a result, the ERA lapsed after it failed to win approval in any other state.
The Congresswomen’s Caucus experienced a transition several years after its creation when ideological differences emerged. The first signs of discord came from Millicent Fenwick of New Jersey, who resigned from the caucus in 1979 when it accepted outside financial contributions at a fundraiser for the Women’s Research and Education Institute (WREI), an organization that provided education and outreach resources for the caucus and published the caucus newsletter Update. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for Members of Congress to form a group and get deductibility for contributions made to that group,” Fenwick explained later.58
Caucus membership subsequently declined in the 1980s when several key Members left Congress. In 1980 Holtzman lost a bid for a U.S. Senate seat in New York, and Representative Gladys Noon Spellman of Maryland, the caucus secretary and an important mediator among Members, suffered a heart attack, slipped into a coma, and never regained consciousness. Two years later, Heckler, who had helped spark the creation of the caucus, lost re-election and left the House.59
These losses were not offset by an increase in caucus membership. The four women elected in 1980—Lynn Martin, Marge Roukema, Representative Bobbi Fiedler of California, and Senator Paula Hawkins of Florida—initially refused to join. Hawkins asserted, “I don’t believe in a women’s caucus, Black caucus, or any special interest caucus.”60 The conservative Florida lawmaker also objected to key items on the caucus agenda. She called the Equal Rights Amendment “irrelevant” and “oversold, vaguely worded and ambiguous.”61 Hawkins added, “As women we’re all for equality—or superiority. But there are better ways to attack the problems which have come to be known as women’s issues. Elect more women to the United States Senate. It’s women’s fault for not running for office.”62
Other potential caucus members were concerned that Pat Schroeder, an outspoken liberal, had informally assumed the role of the group’s spokesperson. “The dues were too high, and I don’t need to pay that for a Pat Schroeder show,” Lynn Martin said.63 The four Republican women initially distanced themselves from the caucus to avoid alienating the new Ronald Reagan administration and its large conservative constituency. Eventually, four other women—Democrats Beverly B. Byron of Maryland and Marilyn Lloyd, as well as Republicans Marjorie Holt and Virginia Smith, all among the least active caucus members—resigned for the same reason. By late 1981, only 10 of the 20 Congresswomen belonged to the caucus.
Alongside its declining enrollment, the caucus had to adopt new membership policies following a change to House policies.64 In October 1981, the House Administration Committee wrote new regulations that affected all 26 legislative service organizations (LSOs), including the Congresswomen’s Caucus. The new procedures stipulated that an LSO using House office space, supplies, and equipment could no longer receive funding from outside sources such as corporations or nonprofit foundations. With subscriptions to Update now defined as a source of outside revenue, the caucus had to either change how it collected dues or cut ties with the House and fund the WREI as a separate, off-site entity.
Ultimately, the caucus decided to update how it raised money to keep its status as an LSO. As a result, in March 1982, the Congresswomen’s Caucus changed its name to the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues (CCWI) and opened its ranks to male Members of Congress. “The Congresswomen’s Caucus has gone co-ed,” reported the New York Times when the policy was first approved.65 Opening the caucus to everyone meant it could collect dues from more Members and compensate for the loss of outside funding. As full-fledged caucus members, women paid $2,500 per year in dues; men paid $500 per year in dues, for which they received a subscription to Update and a limited role in caucus meetings. Within months, more than 100 men had joined. The decision to allow men to join the caucus proved to be both financially advantageous and politically expedient. “We’ve known for some time that we had to broaden our base of support,” Schroeder explained. “We knew that separatism was not the way to go. We need partnership with men in the women’s movement.” She added, “The money helps, of course, but it’s much more than money we’re interested in. We need allies on changing the multitude of discriminatory and inequitable laws.”66 The caucus kept its office in the Rayburn House Office Building and dropped outside funding.67 By 1985, 110 men and 15 women belonged to the caucus.68
By the 103rd Congress, the caucus had an annual budget of $250,000 and six full-time staffers who drafted and tracked a variety of bills related to women’s issues. With the election of 24 new women Members following the 1992 elections, the caucus membership doubled. When Republicans gained control of the House in 1995, however, GOP leadership eliminated LSOs and forced all caucuses, regardless of party affiliation, to operate without federal resources. As a result, the CCWI created a nonprofit group called Women’s Policy Inc. situated off the Capitol campus. Women’s Policy Inc., like its predecessor WREI, provided resources for outreach and education. With the change in operating structure, however, men were no longer allowed to belong to the caucus.69
By the late 1990s, the caucus included virtually every woman in the House and had weathered its early divisions over issues such as abortion. As Congress generally became more partisan, the caucus retained its bipartisan makeup partly by keeping its co-chair structure, setting a working agenda at the start of each Congress, and pairing women from both parties to work jointly on relevant legislation.70
47“Schroeder Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 11.
48On congressional caucuses in general, see Susan Webb Hammond, Congressional Caucuses in National Policymaking (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).
49“The Honorable Elizabeth Holtzman Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (10 March 2016): 18–19. The interview transcript is available online.
50“Schroeder Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 31.
51Irwin N. Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior, 2nd ed. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 186. For a detailed analysis of the Women’s Caucus that extends into the late 1990s, see Irwin N. Gertzog, Women and Power on Capitol Hill: Reconstructing the Congressional Women’s Caucus (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004).
52“The Honorable Yvonne Brathwaite Burke Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (22 July 2015): 17. The interview transcript is available online.
53“Holtzman Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 27–28.
54“Holtzman Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 23, 28.
55“Holtzman Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 22.
56“Holtzman Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 21–23.
57Jo Freeman, We Will Be Heard: Women’s Struggles for Political Power in the United States (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: 2008): 191–205.
58Lynn Rosellini, “Dues Plan Divides Women’s Caucus,” 16 July 1981, New York Times: C13.
59Gertzog, Congressional Women: 200–202.
60Rosellini, “Dues Plan Divides Women’s Caucus.”
61“Hawkins, Paula,” Current Biography, 1985 (New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1985): 176.
62Elizabeth Bumiller, “The Lady Is the Tigress: Paula Hawkins, Florida’s Pugnacious New Senator,” 2 December 1980, Washington Post: B1; Jo Thomas, “Mrs. Hawkins, the Battling Housewife, Goes to Washington,” 7 November 1980, New York Times: 18.
63Gertzog, Congressional Women: 204–205.
64Gertzog, Congressional Women: 209–212.
65Majorie Hunter, “Congresswomen Admit 46 Men to Their Caucus,” 14 December 1981, New York Times: D10.
66Hunter, “Congresswomen Admit 46 Men to Their Caucus.”
67Hunter, “Congresswomen Admit 46 Men to Their Caucus.”
68Barbara Gamarekian, “Women’s Caucus: Eight Years of Progress,” 27 May 1985, New York Times: A20.
69Kevin Merida, “Role of House Women’s Caucus Changes,” 15 February 1995, Washington Post: A4. See also “The Women’s Caucus: Caucus History & Accomplishments,” Women’s Congressional Policy Institute, accessed 13 January 2020, https://www.wcpinst.org/our-work/the-womens-caucus/caucus-history-and-accomplishments/.
70Allison Stevens, “Women’s Caucus Poised for Late Blooming,” 1 February 2007, Sacramento Observer: B2.