Challenging the Institution

Yvonne Burke/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay3_26_Burke_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Although her most notable distinction in the press came when she was the first Congresswoman to give birth and be granted maternity leave while serving, Yvonne Burke was also a rising star in national politics and the first African-American woman from California elected to the House.
Social changes profoundly altered the characteristics of women who were elected to Congress from the 1970s onward. As younger women entered the institution and displaced an older generation, they faced questions about motherhood and family. Like many of their contemporaries outside of politics, some Congresswomen chose motherhood as well as a career. In November 1973, a year after winning election to the U.S. House, Yvonne Burke gained even greater national notoriety when she gave birth to a daughter, Autumn, to become the first sitting Member of Congress to go on maternity leave. Years later Burke recalled that, “It was definitely a lot of press for a number of reasons. There were people who were critical, but there were people who were very supportive. And then there was curiosity: ‘How could a woman at my age have a baby and, at the same time, be a Member of Congress?’”55

Young mothers in Congress entered territory where few, if any, of their predecessors could provide guidance. Representative Schroeder recalled that several weeks after her first election Congresswoman Abzug telephoned to congratulate her. Abzug then asked incredulously how Schroeder, the mother of two young children, planned to maintain two careers: Representative and mom. “I told her I really wasn’t sure and had hoped she would give the answer, not ask the question!” Schroeder said.56 Service in Congress, she recalled, placed many extra demands on her family and required some creativity on her part, bringing diapers onto the House Floor in her handbag, keeping a bowl of crayons on her office coffee table, moving the family wholesale from Denver to Washington, and contending with her husband’s decision to leave his career to follow hers.57 Reporters often asked Schroeder about being a mother and Congresswoman simultaneously. “And they would also say, ‘What is your biggest fear as a freshman Congresswoman?’” she recalled years later. “And I would say, ‘That my housekeeper quits,’ And they’d say, ‘Nobody ever says that.’ I said, ‘If they were a woman with two children that’s what they would say because my life stops if the housekeeper quits!’”58 Schroeder’s contemporaries and later women Members often echoed her descriptions of the disruption and uprooting of familial rhythms.

Charlotte Reid, Patsy Mink, and Catherine May/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay3_27_MembersOnly_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Patsy Mink Papers, Box 694 Activism from a new generation of women in Congress, including (left to right) Charlotte Reid of Illinois, Patsy Mink of Hawaii, and Catherine May of Washington, extended to the House gym. Despite signage to the contrary, the House gym was not available to all Members of Congress, but only to the male ones.
The younger generation of feminist lawmakers also tended to buck many of Capitol Hill’s most visible discriminatory and patronizing practices. In the 1960s, Patsy Mink publicly protested the House gym’s exclusionary policy toward women by marching on the facility with Charlotte Reid and Catherine May. “It was just a symbolic gesture that there are so many ways in which sex discrimination manifests itself in the form of social custom, mores or whatever, that you really have to make an issue whenever it strikes to protest it,” Mink recalled. “You can’t tolerate it.”59

Congressional women also complained that the only bathroom facilities directly off the House Floor were for men. By the early 1960s, there were nearly 20 women Members sharing a single lavatory. Congresswoman Edith Green appealed to the House Administration Committee to set aside a space for the women, and in 1962 they were assigned a suite off the Old House Chamber that included a powder room, a kitchen, and a sitting area. Eventually, the suite was named the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room in honor of Representative Boggs’s long service to the institution.60 It wasn’t until the early 21st century, that women got a restroom off the House Floor—a convenience that the Congressmen had enjoyed for many years.61

Deviating from traditional dress codes was another way women challenged congressional custom. Bella Abzug challenged the long-standing tradition by trying to wear her trademark hat onto the House Floor. Others followed her lead, often contending with resistance and outright scorn. “The day I wore a pants suit onto the floor you’d have thought I asked for a land base for China,” Armed Services Committee member Pat Schroeder told a local newspaper. “I just want to do my job. Does it make any difference if I have a bow in my hair or not?”62

Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women's Reading Room/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay3_28_BoggsRoom_Ocomm.xml Image courtesy of the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives As women in Congress grew in numbers and in power, they agitated against the institution’s most backward practices. This dedicated space for women Members was one result of their activism, and the room became a busy center of activity away from the House Chamber.
Feminists not only challenged their male colleagues, they also questioned the conviction prevalent among the older generation of Congresswomen that they should not champion their own agenda. In 1971 Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm helped organize the National Women’s Political Caucus to promote greater participation of women in all aspects of U.S. politics. More than 320 women attended the founding conference in Washington, D.C.63 Abzug, Chisholm, and other new Members, including Schroeder and Holtzman, pushed to create a formal congressional women’s caucus both to organize women and to educate the rank-and-file Membership about issues of special importance to women. Early efforts floundered, however, without the sanction of senior women leaders. The most influential among them—Leonor Sullivan, Julia Hansen, and Edith Green—subscribed to more-traditional views and generally hoped to avoid the establishment of a women’s caucus.64 “We had, at that time, I think it was almost half of the women here had inherited—not inherited really—but had run for their husband’s seats after their husbands died,” Schroeder recalled. “Not all of them, but some of them, like Mrs. John Sullivan, thought they weren’t just the woman. They were carrying forward his agenda, whatever that was. . . . and that’s why we didn’t have a women’s caucus. Fourteen was small enough, but if you take half of them out, that’s seven. We’ve got to at least have double digits. So it took a while to get a women’s caucus going.”65

This clash was primarily generational rather than ideological, pitting older Democratic Members against a younger cadre of party members. By 1970, the dean of congressional women was 68-year-old Representative Sullivan, who proved to be far more traditional than many of her younger colleagues. She was the only Congresswoman to vote against the Equal Rights Amendment, not only because she believed it was a threat to labor laws, but because she believed it would jeopardize the family. “I believe that wholesome family life is the backbone of civilization,” Sullivan said. Passage of the ERA would “accelerate the breakup of home life.”66 She added, “There are differences between male and female roles in our society and I hope there always are.”67 Sullivan refused to countenance a women’s caucus because she believed it unnecessary and a possible affront to male colleagues. Julia Hansen, a pioneer at virtually every level of Washington state government, also showed little support for a women’s caucus. Having made her way in the male political world principally by hard work, talent, and determination, without benefit of caucuses or women’s groups, Hansen was reluctant to back a caucus that would distinguish her based on her gender.68 Caucus advocates also received no support from Edith Green. Like Sullivan, Representative Green viewed a potential women’s caucus as a polarizing force that would do little to ease divisions and might even hinder legislation that addressed inequities for women and minorities.69

Other factors added to the reluctance to create a women’s group. The leadership’s lack of support for the effort led some women to question the legitimacy and staying power of a women’s caucus. Others, elected by more-conservative constituencies, feared they might alienate voters by joining a group that likely would advocate nontraditional issues. Also, many Members were particularly concerned with the probable participation of Bella Abzug, a domineering and highly partisan Member some feared might quickly become the public face of the caucus.70

New impetus for organization came after Sullivan, Green, and Hansen retired in the mid-1970s and Abzug left the House to run for the Senate in 1976. By 1977, the deans of House women—Republican Margaret Heckler of Massachusetts and Democrat Shirley Chisholm, elected in their own right in 1966 and 1968, respectively—had only about a decade of seniority.71 These changes enabled a renewed effort to form a women’s caucus and continued emphasis on legislation that addressed women’s economic, social, and health concerns.


55“Yvonne Burke Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 22 July 2015,

56Patricia Schroeder with Andrea Camp and Robyn Lipner, Champion of the Great American Family: A Personal and Political Book (New York: Random House, 1989): 15.

57Schroeder, Champion of the Great American Family: 16–17.

58“Patricia Schroeder Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, 3 June 2015,

59Mink, USAFMOC, Oral History Interview: 111.

60“History of the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room, H-235, United States Capitol,” prepared by the Architect of the Capitol; see also, William Allen, History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2001): 432.

61Nancy McKeon, “After Voting, A Place for a Pit Stop,” 29 July 2011, Washington Post: C1.

62Joan A. Lowy, Pat Schroeder: A Woman of the House (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003): 85.

63For a brief history of the formation of the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) in the summer of 1971, see the finding aid information for the NWPC records at Harvard University, (accessed 16 June 2016); for an account of the organizational meeting see, “Goals Set by Women’s Political Caucus,” 12 July 1971, New York Times: 37

64See Irwin N. Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 165–169.

65“Patricia Schroeder Oral History Interview.”

66Both quotes from Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 234.

67Lowy, Pat Schroeder: 86.

68Susan Tolchin, Women in Congress (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976): 35; Gertzog, Congressional Women: 167–168.

69Gertzog, Congressional Women: 167–169.