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

Shirley Chisholm Portrait/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_Essay3_1_ChisholmPortrait_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The first African-American Congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm of New York was elected in 1968 and soon took a place on the national political stage.
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—provided experience and impetus for a new group of feminist reformers. Within a decade, an older generation of women Members, most of whom believed they could best excel in a man’s world by conforming to male expectations, was supplanted by a younger group who challenged narrowly prescribed social roles and long-standing congressional practices.1

Several trends persisted, however. As did 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 served in the 87th Congress (1961–1963), about 3.7 percent. The latter 1960s were the nadir for new women entering office on Capitol Hill; 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.

Yet, this group of Congresswomen began to embrace a unique legislative identity and an agenda that distinguished them from their predecessors. Representative Martha Griffiths of Michigan, a central figure in the passage of gender-based civil rights legislation, vocalized this new mindset. First elected in 1954, Griffiths chafed at 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’s A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.): 227–235.

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