Outwardly, one notable change in women’s participation in Congress was in racial makeup. In 1964 Hawaii Representative Patsy Mink became the first Asian-American woman and the first woman of color in Congress; all 72 Congresswomen who had preceded her were white. In 1968 Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn, New York, became the first African-American woman elected to Congress. An unprecedented 17 African Americans were elected in the 93rd Congress (1973–1975), including three more women: Yvonne Burke of California, Cardiss Collins of Illinois, and Barbara Jordan of Texas. “There is no longer any need for anyone to speak for all black women forever,” Burke told the Washington Post shortly before she and Jordan were elected to Congress. “I expect Shirley Chisholm is feeling relieved.”9 The first Hispanic-American woman in Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, was elected to the House nearly two decades later, in 1989.
However, race and ethnicity were not the only dramatic changes in the characteristics of women entering Congress; in the decades between 1955 and 1976, a new type of well-educated, professional candidate emerged. Women’s precongressional experiences merged reform backgrounds with specialized training, lengthy résumés, and, increasingly, elective experience. Before 1955 just seven women in Congress held law degrees. The first was Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy of Kansas, elected in 1932. From 1955 through 1976, 10 of the women elected to Congress were lawyers and several were graduates of the nation’s premier law schools. Of the 39 women who were elected or appointed to Congress during this period, 34 (87 percent) had postsecondary education.
Significantly, 14 of these women had served in state legislatures, making the third generation of women in Congress the first in which women elected with legislative experience outnumbered women who were elected as widows. For many women, service in the state legislature was an invaluable introduction to parliamentary procedure and legislative process. “I felt like a fish in just the right temperature of water, learning where the currents were and how to move with them when you wanted to get things done,” Millicent Fenwick recalled of her experience in the New Jersey assembly.10 Several women were legislative leaders: Ella Grasso of Connecticut was elected Democratic floor leader in the Connecticut house in 1955; Julia Hansen of Washington served as speaker pro tempore in the Washington house of representatives from 1955 to 1960; Florence Dwyer of New Jersey was appointed assistant majority leader of the New Jersey assembly in the 1950s; and Barbara Jordan was elected speaker pro tempore of the Texas senate in 1972. These achievements were considerable, given that, by the late 1960s, just 4 percent of all state legislators were women. By the end of the 1970s, that figure had more than doubled to 10.3 percent.11 Women’s increased participation in state legislatures fueled their growing membership in Congress during the latter decades of the 20th century.
Other women, including Mink, Chisholm, Burke, Bella Abzug of New York, Elizabeth Holtzman of New York, and Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, gained valuable political experience as civil rights advocates or as Vietnam War dissenters. Though each had her own style of advocacy and her own public persona, these women were connected by the thread of modern feminism, assertively pursuing their agendas. Catherine Dean May of Washington, who served from 1959 to 1971 and whose legislative style was that of an earlier generation of women Members, noted the feminists’ immediate impact on Congress. “The arrival of personalities like Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug on the congressional scene shook our august body to its foundations,” May recalled. “Shirley and Bella were not what the male members of Congress had come to expect from a female colleague. They got just as demanding and as noisy and as difficult as men did!”12
The widow-familial connection remained for women a significant route to Congress. Of the 39 women who entered Congress between 1955 and 1976, 12 directly succeeded their husbands. Charlotte Reid of Illinois replaced her late husband, GOP candidate Frank Reid, on the ballot when he died just weeks before the 1962 general election. Elaine Edwards of Louisiana was appointed by her husband, Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, to briefly fill a Senate vacancy in 1972. In all, 14 women in the third generation (36 percent) reached Congress via a familial connection. While many women served only as temporary placeholders (eight served a term or less), several, including Reid, Collins, and Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, had long and distinguished careers. Moreover, as a group, the women in Congress during this era served an average of 4.5 House terms or 1.5 Senate terms (9 years), longer, on average, than their predecessors from the second generation, who served 3.5 House terms or slightly more than one Senate term.
The median age of women elected to Congress between 1955 and 1976 rose one year, on average, to 50.1 years despite the fact that five women were elected in their 30s, including Elizabeth Holtzman, who at age 31 years, 7 months, was for many years the youngest woman ever elected to the House.13 The oldest woman elected to Congress during this period was 68-year-old Corrine Riley of South Carolina, who briefly succeeded her late husband to serve the remainder of his term during the 87th Congress. In the House, where all but two of the women elected during this period served, the average age of all new Members tended to be lower. In the late 1950s, the average age of new Members was 43 years. By the first three elections of the 1970s, the median age of all new House Members was 42.1. But even during the 1970s youth movement in the chamber, the women (at 47.9 years) still lagged behind the men by nearly six years. Moreover, 43 percent of the new male Representatives (93 of 216) elected between 1970 and 1974 were in their 20s or 30s.14 The practical result was that the men had a considerable advantage in accruing seniority at a younger age.
More explicitly than their predecessors, women elected between 1955 and 1976 legislated regarding issues that affected women’s lives. Their feminism—their belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes—shaped their agendas. Patsy Mink, one of the first modern feminists elected to Congress, discovered early in her House career that, concerning women’s issues, she was a spokesperson or a “surrogate representative” for all American women.15 Mink recalled that, “because there were only eight women at the time who were Members of Congress . . . I had a special burden to bear to speak for [all women], because they didn’t have people who could express their concerns for them adequately. So, I always felt that we were serving a dual role in Congress, representing our own districts and, at the same time, having to voice the concerns of the total population of women in the country.”16 The Congresswomen of this era tended to perceive themselves and women, in general, as being united by common bonds and life experiences as mothers, primary caregivers, and members of a patriarchal culture.17 These experiences led to interest in legislation to redress long-standing gender-based inequities in areas like health care and reproductive issues, hiring practices and compensation in the workplace, consumer advocacy, access to education, childcare, and welfare programs for single parents.
Thus, to effect these changes, Congresswomen sought assignments on those committees that allocated federal money. An unprecedented four women served on the powerful Appropriations Committee during this period: Julia Hansen, Charlotte Reid, Yvonne Burke, and Edith Green of Oregon. Virginia Smith of Nebraska and Lindy Boggs joined the committee at the beginning of the 95th Congress (1977–1979). At the behest of a group of Congresswomen, Speaker Sam Rayburn appointed Martha Griffiths to the Joint Economic Committee in 1960 and to the prestigious Ways and Means Committee in 1961; these assignments had never been held by a woman. Martha Keys of Kansas won appointment to the Ways and Means Committee as a freshman after reforms in the mid-1970s opened prominent panels to junior Members. Marjorie Holt of Maryland, Patsy Mink, and Elizabeth Holtzman served on the newly created Budget Committee in the early 1970s. Women also had a growing voice in defense decisions as Patricia Schroeder and Holt gained seats on the influential Armed Services Committee. Holtzman and Jordan served on the Judiciary Committee after their 1972 elections, and at the beginning of the 95th Congress, Chisholm became the first Democratic woman to sit on the Rules Committee. The most common committee assignments for women were Education and Labor and Government Operations, followed by Interior and Insular Affairs, Banking and Currency, District of Columbia, Public Works, Post Office and Civil Service, and Veterans’ Affairs.
Women also made leadership advances in caucuses and committees. Most notably, a woman was secretary for the Democratic Caucus, then the party’s fifth-ranking position, for most of the period from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.18Edna Kelly of New York served as caucus secretary in the 83rd (1953–1955), 84th (1955–1957), and 88th (1963–1965) Congresses. Leonor Sullivan of Missouri held the post in the 86th and 87th Congresses (1959–1963) and in the 89th through the 93rd Congresses (1965–1975). Mink succeeded Sullivan in the 94th Congress (1975–1977). In the Senate, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine chaired the Republican Conference from the 90th through 92nd Congresses (1967–1973); she was the highest-ranking woman in party leadership in that chamber. While Sullivan was the only woman to chair a full committee during this period (Merchant Marine and Fisheries in the 93rd and 94th Congresses, from 1973 to 1977), a total of 10 women chaired 13 congressional subcommittees from 1955 to 1976. Julia Hansen quickly advanced to chair the Interior and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the powerful Appropriations Committee, becoming the first woman to serve in that capacity. Other women who chaired subcommittees included Gracie Pfost, who headed the Public Lands’ Subcommittee of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, and Kathryn Granahan of Pennsylvania, who chaired the Postal Operations Subcommittee of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee. Sullivan chaired the Merchant Marine and Fisheries’ Panama Canal Subcommittee and the Consumer Affairs’ Subcommittee of the Banking and Currency Committee. Maude Kee of West Virginia led three panels on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee: Education and Training, Administration, and Hospitals.19
9Leroy F. Aarons, “Legislator With a Subtle Touch,” 22 October 1972, Washington Post: K1.
10Louise Sweeney, “Congress’s Millicent Fenwick: A Blueblood With a Social Conscience,” 25 June 1975, Christian Science Monitor: 17.
11Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ, “Women in State Legislatures, 2003,” http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/Facts/StLegHistory/stleghist.pdf (accessed 30 March 2005).
12Catherine Dean May, Oral History Interview, 1 March 1979, 9 March 1979 and 20 April 1979, U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (hereinafter cited as USAFMOC), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.: 148–149.
13When the U.S. House convened in January 2015 for the opening of the 114th Congress, Elise M. Stefanik of New York surpassed Holtzman to become the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress. At the time of her swearing-in, Stefanik was 30 years, six months old. See “Elise Stefanik,” http://history.house.gov/People/Detail/15032411587?ret=True (accessed 16 June 2016).
14For the 1955–1960 period, see Allan G. Bogue, Jerome M. Clubb, Carroll R. McKibbin, and Santa A. Traugott, “Members of the House of Representatives and the Processes of Modernization, 1789–1960,” Journal of American History 63 (September 1976): 275–302. For the 1970, 1972, and 1974 election, figures were compiled using birth dates from the Congressional Directory. Two hundred thirty-three individuals were elected to the House in the 92nd, 93rd, and 94th Congresses; 17 were women. Eighty-two men were elected in their 30s, and 11 men were elected in their 20s.
15Jane Mansbridge, “The Many Faces of Representation,” Working Paper, 1998, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; and Jane Mansbridge, “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes,’” Journal of Politics 61 (1999): 628–657.
16Patsy T. Mink, Oral History Interview, 6 March 1979, 26 March 1979, and 7 June 1979, USAFMOC, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.: 43.
17Susan J. Carroll, “Representing Women: Congresswomen’s Perceptions of Their Representational Roles,” paper delivered at the 13–15 April 2000, conference on “Women Transforming Congress,” Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center, University of Oklahoma, Norman.
18Mildred Amer, “Major Leadership Election Contests in the House of Representatives, 94th–108th Congresses,” 3 September 2003, Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report for Congress, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Amer, “Women in the United States Congress, 1917–2004,” 1 July 2004, CRS Report for Congress, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
19The online Women in Congress exhibition includes lists of women committee chairs, http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Data/Women-Chairs-of-Congressional-Committees/; subcommittee chairs, http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Data/Women-Chairs-of-Subcommittees/; and a list of women elected to leadership positions, http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Data/Women-Elected-to-Party-Leadership/.