A Changing of the Guard: Traditionalists, Feminists, and the New Face of Women in Congress, 1955–1976

The third generation of women in Congress—the 39 individuals who entered the House of Representatives and the Senate between 1955 and 1976—legislated during an era of upheaval in America. Overlapping social and political movements during this period—the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; the groundswell of protest against American intervention in the Vietnam War in the mid- to late 1960s; the women’s liberation movement and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s; and the Watergate Scandal and efforts to reform Congress in the 1970s—encouraged more and more women to enter politics and provided valuable experience for a new group of feminist reformers. Within a decade, a younger group of women Members who challenged narrowly prescribed social roles and long-standing congressional practices supplanted an older generation of women Members, most of whom believed they could best excel in a man’s world by conforming to male expectations.1

Several trends persisted, however. Like the pioneer generation (1917–1934) and the second generation (1935–1954), the third generation of women accounted for only a small fraction of the total population of Congress. At the peak of the third generation, 20 women (about 3.7 percent of the total House and Senate membership at the time) served in the 87th Congress (1961–1963). The 1960s, however, saw the number of new women serving on Capitol Hill drop; only 11 women were elected or appointed to office during the entire decade. Moreover, the widow-familial connection, though less prevalent than in earlier generations, remained a significant route for women to Congress.

Representative Patsy Mink walks up the Capitol Steps/tiles/non-collection/E/Essay3_1_mink_capitol_PA2013_06_0001h-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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In 1964 Patsy Takemoto Mink won her campaign for a United States House seat from Hawaii and became the first woman of color to serve in Congress.
Yet, this group of Congresswomen began to embrace a unique legislative identity and an agenda that distinguished them from their predecessors. Representative Martha Wright Griffiths of Michigan, a central figure in the passage of gender-based civil rights legislation, articulated this new mindset. First elected in 1954, Griffiths disdained the deference senior Congresswomen showed to the traditions of the male-dominated institution. “The error of most women was they were trying to make the men who sat in Congress not disapprove of them,” Griffiths recalled years later. “I think they wanted to be liked, they didn’t want to make enemies. So they didn’t try to do things they thought the men would disapprove of. I didn’t give a damn whether the men approved or not.”2 More often than not, women elected to Congress after Griffiths shared her sentiment.

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1For further reading, see Jo Freeman, A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999): 227–235.

2Elizabeth Kastor, “A Woman’s Place; The 1950s Were Not Easy for Females in Congress,” 17 November 1996, Washington Post: F01.