After Leonor Sullivan of Missouri, the dean of women in the House, retired in 1977, momentum for a women’s caucus developed rapidly. Sullivan had energetically opposed the formation of a caucus, fearing it would increase tensions with male colleagues and undo decades of women’s efforts to work their way into the institutional power structure. Her departure, along with the retirements of veterans like Edith Green of Oregon and Julia Butler Hansen of Washington, removed the greatest roadblock to forming a caucus.
Organizers acted quickly. Among the core founders were Elizabeth Holtzman, Margaret Heckler of Massachusetts, Shirley Chisholm of New York, and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. The Congresswomen’s Caucus convened for its first 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, follow floor action and support caucus legislation by testifying before committees; and, four, monitor federal government initiatives affecting women.15 Founding Member Yvonne Burke felt that the creation of the caucus was a statement to “women of every ethnicity and every political party that there was a place for women in the process.”16
Holtzman and Heckler served as the first co-chairs, imparting the bipartisan cast the group would retain. Fifteen women joined the caucus. Three women—Marilyn Lloyd of Tennessee, Marjorie Holt of Maryland, and Virginia Smith of Nebraska—initially declined membership because they felt their constituents would disapprove, but they later joined the caucus. The group also received a boost from important noncongressional entities and won the enthusiastic endorsement of advocacy groups like the National Organization for Women (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 and obtained an extension for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The joint resolution proposing the amendment passed Congress in March 1972, but it required that three-quarters of state legislatures ratify the amendment within seven years for it to be incorporated 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 approved the ERA indicated their intentions to rescind support. Thus, in 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. The caucus campaigned to win support for the measure when it was taken up before the House Judiciary Committee. 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 recalls 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, from building personal relationships to creating 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.”17 The organization also benefitted from the support of allies such as labor unions and the NOW.18 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, there were concerns among Members that the Congresswomen’s Caucus might not represent the interests of every woman in Congress. Congresswoman 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.”19 She thought that Members could strike a delicate balance by avoiding controversial issues in the interest of promoting common goals.20
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 it after sustained opposition from constitutional lawyer and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly and her STOP ERA campaign, which mobilized socially conservative women concerned that the ERA might undermine traditional family relationships.21 The ERA lapsed, failed to obtain approval in any other state, and was not incorporated into the Constitution.
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 in 1979 when the organization accepted outside contributions at a fundraiser for the Women’s Research and Education Institute (WREI), an organization that provided resources for education and outreach 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.22
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. In addition, Representative Gladys Spellman of Maryland, the caucus secretary and an important mediator among Members, suffered a heart attack in late 1980 and slipped into a coma from which she never regained consciousness.23
These losses were not offset by an increase in caucus membership. The four Congresswomen elected in 1980—Lynn Martin, Marge Roukema of New Jersey, Paula Hawkins of Florida, and Roberta (Bobbi) Fiedler of California—initially refused to join. Senator Hawkins asserted, “I don’t believe in a women’s caucus, black caucus, or any special interest caucus.”24 The conservative Hawkins also objected to key items on the caucus agenda. She called the Equal Rights Amendment “irrelevant” and “oversold, vaguely worded and ambiguous.”25 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.”26 Other potential caucus members were disturbed by the fact that Patricia (Pat) Schroeder of Colorado, 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.27 The four Republican women initially distanced themselves from the caucus to avoid the political costs of alienating the new Ronald Reagan administration and its large constituency. Eventually, four other women—Democrats Beverly 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, membership had declined, as only 10 of the 20 Congresswomen belonged to the caucus.
Declining enrollment and changes in the House Rules forced the group to adopt new membership procedures, which further altered its composition.28 In October 1981, the House Administration Committee wrote new regulations that affected all 26 legislative service organizations (LSOs), including the Congresswomen’s Caucus, that operated in the institution. 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 was forced to either adopt new rules for dues and membership to retain its status as an LSO associated with the House or to cut its ties with the House and fund the WREI as a separate, off-site entity.
Thus, in March 1982, the Congresswomen’s Caucus changed its name to the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues and opened up 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.29 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 circumscribed role in the caucus meetings. Within months, more than 100 men had joined. The decision to allow men to join the caucus was not only financially advantageous, but also 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.”30 The caucus kept its office in the Rayburn House Office Building and dropped outside funding.31 By 1985, 110 men and 15 women were members of the caucus.32
By the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), the caucus had an annual budget of $250,000 and six full-time staff members who drafted and tracked a variety of bills related to women’s issues. The 1992 elections doubled the caucus membership, as 24 new women won elections to the House. However, when the Republicans gained control of the House in 1995, the GOP leadership eliminated LSOs and forced all caucuses, regardless of party affiliation, to operate without resources from the House. The CCWI created Women’s Policy Inc., a nonprofit group that was moved out of House facilities. Like its predecessor WREI, Women’s Policy Inc. was tasked with providing resources for outreach and education. Men were no longer allowed to be caucus members.33
By the late 1990s, the caucus included virtually every woman House Member and had weathered its early divisions over issues like abortion. As Congress generally became more partisan, the caucus retained its bipartisanship partly by keeping the co-chair structure, moving further from the divisive abortion issue, setting a working agenda at the start of each Congress, and pairing women from both parties to work jointly on introducing relevant legislation.34
Women on the Campaign Trail
Historically, a lack of money had discouraged many women from seeking political office. Jeannette Rankin’s 1916 campaign depended heavily on the largesse of her wealthy brother. Many of the early women in Congress, including Ruth Pratt of New York, Ruth Hanna McCormick of Illinois, Caroline O’Day of New York, Frances Bolton of Ohio, Clare Boothe Luce of Connecticut, and Katharine St. George of New York, won their first elections because they were independently wealthy. Campaign funding was a source of concern even for incumbent women in Congress.
In 1962 Catherine D. Norrell of Arkansas, who had succeeded her late husband a year earlier, faced reapportionment and a campaign against a powerful incumbent. She seriously considered seeking a second term, but at the filing deadline announced she would not seek re-election due to the exorbitant cost of campaigning. The expense of running campaign commercials on television, Norrell lamented, was transforming politics into “a rich person’s game.”35 Senator Maurine Neuberger of Oregon left office after one term, citing health concerns. “But the real, actual, hard core reason I didn’t run was raising the money I knew it was going to take,” she recalled years later. “Each year it got more and more expensive, and I just didn’t have the heart to go out and buttonhole people in various organizations from New York to California to Florida and Seattle to build a campaign chest.”36 Neuberger calculated that a 1966 Senate race would have cost at least $250,000. During the next four decades, campaign costs soared because of the expense of advertising on television, radio, and the Internet and because of the expense of hiring large, professional campaign staffs.
Norrell’s and Neuberger’s contemporaries outside government soon began to organize political groups to raise public awareness about women’s issues and to generate the resources to field more women candidates. On June 30, 1966, NOW was created at the Third National Conference of the Commission on the Status of Women. With Betty Friedan as its first president, NOW committed itself “to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.”37 The group organized mass rallies and protests, lobbied government officials, and initiated class-action lawsuits and other forms of litigation. Among its major aims were to champion women’s reproductive freedom and economic equality as well as to combat racial injustice and violence against women. NOW figured prominently in debates during the 1970s about the ERA and about a woman’s right to seek an abortion. It became a powerful political and educational force and enrolled more than 500,000 members in more than 500 chapters nationwide by the first decade of the 21st century.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, women’s political action committees (PACs) played a critical role in raising money for candidates. No single PAC surpassed the achievements of EMILY’s List, an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast” (it makes the dough rise). Frustrated with Democratic women’s lack of progress in gaining and retaining congressional seats, 25 women founded the group in 1985, and culled their first donors from their personal contacts. EMILY’s List raised money for prochoice women candidates, whose numbers in the House had declined since the 1970s. Under the leadership of founder and president Ellen Malcolm, the group provided its membership with information on selected candidates and encouraged donors to contribute money directly to their campaigns. “Money is the first rule, the second rule, and the third rule” of campaign success, Malcolm observed.39 In 1986 EMILY’s List raised $350,000 from its 1,155 members to help Representative Mikulski become the first Democratic woman to win election to the Senate without a family member preceding her. EMILY’s List paid for a crucial poll that demonstrated that she could win the election. “It showed I had a core base in an area that was determinative,” she said.40 During the 1990s, the group went international, with EMILY’s List UK established in 1993, followed in 1996 by EMILY’s List Australia. By 2013, more than 3,000,000 members had raised $350 million since its founding.41 After 2010, the emergence of so-called super PACs—independent organizations without restrictions on fundraising or spending—has made outside groups even more influential in the electoral process.
15Irwin Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Behavior, and Integration (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 186. For a detailed analysis of the Women’s Caucus that extends into the late 1990s, see Gertzog’s Women and Power on Capitol Hill: Reconstructing the Congressional Women’s Caucus (Boulder, CO: Rienner Publishers, 2004).
16“The Honorable Yvonne Burke Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 22 July 2015, http://history.house.gov/Oral-History/Women/Representative-Burke/.
17“The Honorable Elizabeth Holtzman Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 10 March 2016, http://history.house.gov/Oral-History/Women/Representative-Holtzman/.
21Jo Freeman, We Will Be Heard: Women’s Struggles for Political Power in the United States (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: 2008): 191–205.
22Lynn Rosellini, “Dues Plan Divides Women’s Caucus,” 16 July 1981, New York Times: C13.
23Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Behavior, and Integration: 200—202.
24Rosellini, “Dues Plan Divides Women’s Caucus.”
25“Paula Hawkins,” Current Biography 1985 (New York: H.W. Wilson and Company, 1985): 176.
26Elizabeth 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.
27Gertzog, Congressional Women: 204–205.
29Majorie Hunter, “Congresswomen Admit 46 Men to Their Caucus,” New York Times, 14 December 1981, New York Times: D10.
30Hunter, “Congresswomen Admit 46 Men to Their Caucus.”
32Barbara Gamarekian, “Women’s Caucus: Eight Years of Progress,” 27 May 1985, New York Times: A20.
33Kevin Merida, “Role of House Women’s Caucus Changes,” 15 February 1995, Washington Post: A4; see also “The Women’s Caucus: Caucus History,” Women’s Congressional Policy Institute, http://www.womenspolicy.org/our-work/the-womens-caucus/ (accessed 28 September 2016).
34Allison Stevens, “Women’s Caucus Poised for Late Blooming,” 1 February 2007, Sacramento Observer: B2.
35Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 289.
36Maurine Neuberger, Oral History Interview, April 5 and 17, 1979; May 1, 10, 15, 1979, conducted by the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, Inc., Manuscript Room, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
37“About,” National Organization for Women, http://now.org/about/history/statement-of-purpose/ (accessed 28 September 2016).
38Other influential PACs included the nonpartisan Women’s Campaign Fund, created in 1974 to fund pro-choice political candidates; WISH (“Women in the Senate and House”) List, which supports pro-choice Republican women; and the National Women’s Political Caucus, founded in the early 1970s, to promote women’s participation in the political process by supporting pro-choice women at all levels of government and providing political training for its members. In the 1990s and 2000s, a number of pro-life PACs were founded to support candidates who opposed abortion procedures. These groups included the Republican National Coalition for Life, founded by Phyllis Schlafly in 1990; the National Pro-Life Alliance; and the Pro-Life Campaign Committee.
39Charles Trueheart, “Politics’ New Wave of Women; With Voters Ready for a Change, Candidates Make Their Move,” 7 April 1992, Washington Post: E1.
40Jennifer Steinhauer, “As Fund-Raisers in Congress, Women Break the Cash Ceiling,” 30 November 2013, New York Times: A11.
41“Our History,” EMILY’s List, http://www.emilyslist.org/pages/entry/our-history (accessed 29 September 2016); Steinhauer, “As Fund-Raisers in Congress, Women Break the Cash Ceiling.”