Women on the Campaign Trail

Over the last century, the cost of running for Congress has skyrocketed, and women candidates, in particular, have often worked overtime to overcome the financial obstacles of entering politics. Many of the earliest women in Congress were independently wealthy and funded their own campaigns. But almost every candidate keenly felt the cost burden of running for office. Campaign funding was a source of concern even for incumbent women Members.

In 1962, for instance, Catherine D. Norrell of Arkansas, decided to retire rather than run for re-election because campaigning was “a rich person’s game,” she said.16 Senator Maurine B. 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.”17 Neuberger calculated that a 1966 Senate race would have cost at least $250,000—or almost $2 million in 2020.18 During the next six decades, campaign costs soared as Members ran costly ads on television, the radio, and the internet, and often hired large, professional campaign staffs.

Lapel Pin for Eva Clayton for Congress/tiles/non-collection/E/Essay4_4_clayton_lapel_pin_2008_047_014-2-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Long before her election to the United States House, Eva M. Clayton was active in the civil rights movement and served as the assistant secretary of the North Carolina department of natural resources and community development. When she arrived in Congress, Clayton became the state’s first African-American Representative since 1901.
Women 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, the National Organization for Women (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.” The group organized rallies and protests, lobbied government officials, and initiated class-action lawsuits and other forms of litigation. NOW championed the Equal Rights Amendment, women’s reproductive freedom, and economic equality. It also worked to end racial injustice and violence against women. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, it had become a powerful political and educational force and enrolled more than 500,000 members in more than 500 chapters nationwide.19

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, women’s political action committees (PACs) played a critical role raising money for candidates.20 No single PAC surpassed the achievements of EMILY’s List, an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast.” Frustrated by the lack of progress gaining and retaining congressional seats among Democratic women, 25 women founded the group in 1985, and culled their first donors from their personal contacts. Under the leadership of founder and president Ellen Malcolm, EMILY’s List backed women candidates who supported abortion rights, whose numbers in the House had declined since the 1970s. The organization provided its members with information on selected candidates and encouraged donations directly to their campaigns. “Money is the first rule, the second rule, and the third rule” of campaign success, Malcolm observed.21 In 1986 EMILY’s List raised $350,000 from its 1,155 members to help Maryland Representative Barbara A. Mikulski become the first Democratic woman to win election to the Senate without a family member having preceded her. During the campaign, EMILY’s List paid for a crucial poll that demonstrated Mikulski could win. “It showed I had a core base in an area that was determinative,” Mikulski said.22 During the 1990s, the group went international: EMILY’s List UK was 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.23 Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the case Citizens United, the emergence of “Super PACs”—independent organizations without restrictions on fundraising or spending—has made outside groups even more influential in the electoral process.24

Pat Schroeder Speaking at a Demonstration for the Violence Against Women Act/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay4_11_SchroederNOW_HousePhotography.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, speaking at the podium, and other Members of Congress spoke forcefully in favor of measures that created new federal protections for women and installed new guidelines for prosecuting violent crimes against them. In 1994 Congress passed the landmark Violence Against Women Act.
Expectations for a breakthrough election year for women had been high since the late 1970s; in fact, 1984 had been optimistically, but prematurely, advertised as the “Year of the Woman.” The rise of a “gender gap”—the tendency for women and men voters to support different candidates—in the 1984 elections and the selection of Representative Geraldine Anne Ferraro of New York as the Democratic candidate for Vice President—the first woman to appear on a major party ticket—raised expectations for a strong turnout by women at the polls for the Democrats.25 That turnout failed to materialize in 1984, however, and Ferraro and Democratic presidential candidate Walter Frederick Mondale of Minnesota lost in a landslide to the incumbent President Ronald Reagan.

In November 1992, however, American voters elected more new women to Congress than in any previous decade, beginning a period of unparalleled advances for women in Congress. That year women went to the polls energized by a record-breaking number of women candidates on the federal ticket. Nationally, 13 women won major party nominations for Senate races while 108 women contended for House seats in the general election, including two women running for Delegate.26 The results were unprecedented. The 24 women who won election to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time that November comprised the largest number elected to the House in any single election up to that point, and the three women elected to the Senate tripled the number of women in that chamber.27 The results were so pronounced that 1992 became known as “Year of the Woman.” It also marked the beginning of nearly three decades of remarkable achievements for minority women candidates. More than 80 percent of the African-American, Hispanic-American, and Asian-Pacific-American women who have served in Congress were elected between 1992 and 2018.

The impressive gains by women in 1992 did not result from any one galvanizing event; rather, they occurred at the confluence of several long-term trends and short-term election year issues: Congressional incumbents faced a stiff headwind amid an economic downturn that started in 1991; the end of the Cold War shifted the national focus from the Soviet-American conflict to other issues, including health care, education, welfare reform, and the environment; and a political scandal in which many Representatives had overdrawn their accounts with the House “bank,” an internal financial service operated by the Sergeant at Arms, contributed to the general anti-incumbent sentiment among voters who disdained politics in Washington as isolated or corrupt. Moreover, the debate over abortion had reached a decisive point, with a President opposed to abortion and the Supreme Court considering a ruling that could have reversed Roe v. Wade.

Anita Hill testifies at Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation hearing/tiles/non-collection/E/Essay4_6_Anita_Hill_LC-1.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress During confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas’s nomination to be a Supreme Court Justice, Anita Hill, a former aide, accused him of sexual harassment. When the Senate refused to hear testimony from Hill, seven Democratic women from the House marched in protest to address the caucus of their Democratic Senate colleagues. Although they were initially rebuffed, the Senate eventually called Hill to testify about her experience.
President George H. W. Bush’s decision to nominate the conservative Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall also galvanized women candidates and voters. Thomas’s anti-abortion stance as well as his opposition to affirmative action made him a lightning rod for liberal groups and Democratic Senators. But his confirmation hearings became a public forum on sexual harassment in the workplace when Thomas’s former aide, Anita Hill, accused him of making unwanted advances toward her. Initially, Senators refused to call Hill as a witness in televised hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Women Members of the House were outraged. At the suggestion of Pat Schroeder, seven Democratic women marched across the East Front of the Capitol to the Senate intent on protesting the matter at a meeting of their Democratic Senate colleagues. When they demanded to see Majority Leader George John Mitchell of Maine, an aide stopped them at the door of the caucus meeting and said, “You can’t see George Mitchell because we don’t allow strangers in the Senate.” “Strangers?” then-Representative Barbara Boxer of California later remembered thinking. “We have 100 years of experience between us, we’re not strangers.”28 Eventually, Mitchell met privately with the group and agreed that Hill would testify.

Broadcast into millions of homes, the spectacle of the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee offering Hill little sympathy, and at moments treating her with outright hostility, reinforced the perception that the experiences and perspectives of women received short shrift in the halls of Congress. It gave momentum to many candidates in the fall elections and contributed to a record number of women winning. Despite their electoral success, however, women were still vastly underrepresented on Capitol Hill. “People were so mad about Anita Hill’s treatment,” Schroeder observed. “So a lot of women got elected and yet even then, we were not 10 percent of the House.” In an oral history, Schroeder recalled the Opening Day of the 103rd Congress, in January 1993, as the large class of women took the Oath of Office on the House Floor. A male colleague walked up to her and said, “Well I hope you’re happy, this place is starting to look like a shopping center.” Without missing a beat, the Colorado Congresswoman replied, “Where do you shop, where only 10 percent of the people are women? Really, it looks like a shopping mall to you?”29

As evident in Schroeder’s conversation, the “Year of the Woman” may have helped diversify Congress, but misogyny and discrimination remained. The 1992 elections did, however, spark a larger change. Long-term factors, such as the availability of funding and the growing pool of politically experienced women, put into place vital institutional support for candidates who sought election over the next two decades. As women continued to win elections, party leaders in Congress began to actively recruit them for office.30

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16Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 289.

17Maurine Neuberger, Oral History Interview, 5 April 1979, 17 April 1979, 1 May 1979, 10 May 1979, and 15 May 1979, U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (USAFMOC), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC: 84.

18The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has an inflation calculator on its website, which is available here, https://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl.

19“Statement of Purpose,” National Organization for Women, accessed 13 January 2020, https://now.org/about/history/statement-of-purpose/.

20Other influential PACs included the nonpartisan Women’s Campaign Fund, created in 1974 to fund candidates that support abortion rights; WISH (“Women in the Senate and House”) List, which supports Republican women in favor of abortion rights; and the National Women’s Political Caucus, founded in the early 1970s, to promote women’s participation in the political process and back women candidates that support abortion rights at all levels of government and providing political training for its members. In the 1990s and 2000s, a number of PACs were also founded to support candidates who opposed abortion. 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.

21Charles Trueheart, “Politics’ New Wave of Women,” 7 April 1992, Washington Post: E1.

22Jennifer Steinhauer, “As Fund-Raisers in Congress, Women Break the Cash Ceiling,” 30 November 2013, New York Times: A11.

23“Our History,” EMILY’s List, accessed 13 January 2020, https://www.emilyslist.org/pages/entry/our-history; Steinhauer, “As Fund-Raisers in Congress, Women Break the Cash Ceiling.”

24Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

25See, for example, Jane Perlez, “Women, Power, and Politics,” 24 June 1984, New York Times: SM22.

26There were 157 women running in the Democratic and Republican primaries for the U.S. House (140) and the Senate (17). Previously, the largest number of women contenders was 10 for Senate seats (1984) and 70 for House seats (1990). See “Summary of Women Candidates for Selected Offices,” Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, accessed 13 January 2020, https://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/resources/can_histsum.pdf.

27Twenty-four women had been elected to the House in the decade that lasted from 1980 to 1989; 23 were elected between 1970 and 1979. Representative Eva M. Clayton of North Carolina and Senator Dianne Feinstein of California won special elections on November 3, 1992, to fill vacant seats in Congress. They joined the 102nd Congress, while the 25 other women elected in 1992 were not sworn in until the start of the 103rd Congress.

28“The Honorable Barbara Boxer Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (29 November 2018): 23–25. The interview transcript is available online.

29“The Honorable Patricia Scott Schroeder Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (3 June 2015): 38–40. See also “The Honorable Mary Rose Oakar Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (2 March 2017): 50–52. The interview transcripts are available online.

30Adam Clymer, “In 2002, Woman’s Place May Be in the Statehouse,” 15 April 2002, New York Times: A1.