Challenging the Institution

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 became the focus of even greater national attention 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?’”57

Young mothers in Congress entered territory where almost none 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.58 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.59 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!”60 Schroeder’s contemporaries and later women Members often echoed her descriptions of how serving in Congress disrupted and uprooted family rhythms and routines.

Reprsentative Margaret Heckler/tiles/non-collection/E/Essay3_14_Heckler_PA2015_05_0021d-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Margaret M. Heckler of Massachusetts served on five standing committees during her eight terms in Congress that spanned the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Heckler was an early proponent of the creation of a caucus of Congresswomen.
The younger generation of feminist lawmakers also tended to confront many of Capitol Hill’s most discriminatory and patronizing practices. In the 1960s, Patsy Mink publicly protested the House gym’s exclusionary policy toward women by marching to 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.”61

Women in Congress also had to contend with the fact that the only bathroom facilities directly of f the House Floor were for men. By the early 1960s, there were nearly 20 women Members sharing a single lavatory a good distance from the chamber. Congresswoman Edith Green appealed to the House Administration Committee to set aside a space for women Members, and in 1962 they secured a suite of f 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.62 It was not until the twenty-first century that women had access to a restroom off the House Floor—a convenience Congressmen had enjoyed for decades.63

Deviating from traditional dress codes was another way women defied 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?”64

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, DC.65 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 rank-and-file Members about issues of special importance to women. But without the support of senior women leaders, these early efforts floundered. 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.66 “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.”67

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.”68 She added, “There are differences between male and female roles in our society and I hope there always are.”69

Sullivan, who refused to countenance a women’s caucus because she believed it was unnecessary and might of fend male colleagues, was not alone. 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 without the benefit of caucuses or women’s groups, Hansen was reluctant to back a caucus that would distinguish her based on her gender.70 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.71

The House 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. Many Members were also particularly concerned with the likely participation of Bella Abzug, whose personality and partisanship many feared would quickly overshadow the caucus’s agenda.72

But by the mid-1970s, Sullivan, Green, and Hansen had retired, and Abzug had left the House to run for the Senate in 1976. In 1977 the deans of House women—Republican Margaret M. Heckler of Massachusetts and Democrat Shirley Chisholm, elected in their own right in 1966 and 1968, respectively—had only about a decade of seniority as a new generation of women started careers on Capitol Hill.73 Amid these changes, supporters renewed their effort to form a women’s caucus and continued emphasizing legislation that addressed women’s economic, social, and health concerns.


57“The Honorable Yvonne Burke Oral History Interview,” Of f ice of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (22 July 2015): 8. The interview transcript is available online.

58Patricia Schroeder with Andrea Camp and Robyn Lipner, Champion of the Great American Family: A Personal and Political Book (New York: Random House, 1989): 15.

59Schroeder, Champion of the Great American Family: 16–17.

60“The Honorable Patricia Schroeder Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (3 June 2015): 28–29. The interview transcript is available online.

61Mink, Oral History Interview, USAFMOC: 111.

62Office of Art & Archives, U.S. House of Representatives, “Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room.”  See also, William C. Allen, History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (Washington, DC: Government Printing Of f ice, 2001): 432.

63Nancy McKeon, “After Voting, A Place for a Pit Stop,” 29 July 2011, Washington Post: C1.

64Joan A. Lowy, Pat Schroeder: A Woman of the House (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003): 85.

65For a brief history of the formation of the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) in the summer of 1971, see pages 6–8 in the finding aid for the NWPC records at Harvard University, “Records of the National Political Women’s Caucus, 1970–2006,” Harvard Library, accessed 3 January 2020, For an account of the organizational meeting, see “Goals Set by Women’s Political Caucus,” 12 July 1971, New York Times: 37.

66See Irwin N. Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 165–169.

67“Schroeder Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 11.

68Both quotes from Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 234.

69Lowy, Pat Schroeder: 86.

70Susan J. Tolchin, Women in Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Of f ice, 1976): 35; Gertzog, Congressional Women: 167–168.

71Gertzog, Congressional Women: 167–169.

72Gertzog, Congressional Women: 167–169.

73Gertzog, Congressional Women: 167–169.