Beginning in the 1960s, the ranks of women in Congress grew steadily more diverse. In 1964 Hawaii Representative Patsy Takemoto Mink became the first Asian-American woman and the first woman of color to serve in Congress; all 72 Congresswomen who had preceded her were white. In 1968 Shirley Anita Chisholm of Brooklyn, New York, became the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Four years later, an unprecedented 17 African Americans served in the 93rd Congress (1973–1975), including three more women: Yvonne Brathwaite 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.”10 The first Hispanic-American woman in Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, was elected to the House nearly two decades later, in 1989. It would be another 30 years before the first Native-American Congresswomen—Representatives Sharice Davids of Kansas and Debra Haaland of New Mexico—served in the House.
Alongside the growing racial and ethnic diversity of this generation, women running for Congress in the decades between 1955 and 1976 were also well-educated and often touted a wealth of professional credentials. Women’s precongressional experiences merged reform backgrounds with specialized training, lengthy résumés, and, increasingly, political 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 educations.
Significantly, 14 of these women had served in state legislatures. This was the first generation in which women elected with legislative experience outnumbered women who were elected as widows. For many women—like many of their male colleagues—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.11 Several women were legislative leaders at the state level: Ella Tambussi Grasso of Connecticut was elected Democratic floor leader in the Connecticut house in 1955; Julia Butler Hansen of Washington served as speaker pro tempore in the Washington house of representatives from 1955 to 1960; Florence P. Dwyer of New Jersey was appointed assistant majority leader of the New Jersey assembly in the 1950s; and Barbara Jordan was elected president 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.12 Women’s increased participation in state legislatures fueled their growing membership in Congress during the latter decades of the twentieth century.
Other women, including Mink, Chisholm, Burke, Bella Savitzky Abzug of New York, Elizabeth Holtzman of New York, and Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, gained valuable political experience as civil rights advocates or as critics of the Vietnam War. Though each had her own style of advocacy and her own public persona, these women were connected by the thread of modern feminism and steadfastly pursued 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!”13
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 T. 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 S. 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 Corinne Claiborne (Lindy) Boggs of Louisiana, had long and distinguished careers. Moreover, as a group, women in Congress during this era served an average of nine years (4.5 House terms or 1.5 Senate terms). This tenure was longer, on average, than their predecessors from the second generation who served closer to seven years (3.5 House terms or slightly more than one Senate term).
The median age of women elected to Congress between 1955 and 1976 was 50.1 years. This was only about a year older than the second generation, despite the fact that five women during this period 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.14 The oldest woman elected to Congress during this period was 68-year-old Corinne Boyd 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 new Members tended to be lower. In the late 1950s, the average age of new Members was 43. 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, women (at 47.9 years) were roughly six years older than men at the time of their election. Moreover, 43 percent of the new male Representatives (93 of 216) elected between 1970 and 1974 were in their 20s or 30s.15 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 on issues that affected women’s lives. Their feminism—their belief in social, political, and economic gender equality—shaped their agendas. Patsy Mink, one of the first modern feminists elected to Congress, discovered early in her House career that she was a spokesperson or a “surrogate representative” for all American women especially concerning women’s issues.16 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.”17 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.18
These shared experiences sparked legislative efforts to redress long-standing gender-based inequities in areas such as health care and reproductive issues, hiring practices and compensation in the workplace, consumer advocacy, access to education, childcare, and welfare programs for single parents. It also led these Congresswomen to seek seats on committees where they could shape policy and secure federal funding. An unprecedented four women served on the powerful House Appropriations Committee during this period: Julia Hansen, Charlotte Reid, Yvonne Burke, and Edith Starrett Green of Oregon. Virginia Dodd 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; Griffiths was the first woman to hold either of those assignments. Martha Elizabeth Keys of Kansas won appointment to the Ways and Means Committee as a first-term Member after reforms in the mid-1970s opened prominent panels to junior lawmakers. Marjorie Sewell Holt of Maryland, Patsy Mink, and Elizabeth Holtzman served on the newly created Budget Committee in the 1970s as well. 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. Overall, 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.19Edna Flannery Kelly of New York served as caucus secretary in the 83rd (1953–1955), 84th (1955–1957), and 88th (1963–1965) Congresses. Leonor K. Sullivan of Missouri held the post in the 86th and 87th Congresses (1959–1963) and in the 88th 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 Leonor 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 subcommittees from 1955 to 1976. In the House, Julia Hansen quickly advanced to chair the Interior and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the powerful Appropriations Committee, becoming the first woman to lead an Appropriations subcommittee. Other women who chaired subcommittees included Gracie Pfost, who headed the House Public Lands Subcommittee of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, and Kathryn E. Granahan of Pennsylvania, who chaired the Postal Operations Subcommittee of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee. Sullivan chaired the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries’ Panama Canal Subcommittee and the Consumer Affairs Subcommittee of the Banking and Currency Committee. Maude Elizabeth Kee of West Virginia led three panels on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee: Education and Training; Administration; and Hospitals.20
10Leroy F. Aarons, “Legislator With a Subtle Touch,” 22 October 1972, Washington Post: K1.
11Louise Sweeney, “Congress’s Millicent Fenwick: A Blueblood with a Social Conscience,” 25 June 1975, Christian Science Monitor: 17.
12Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ, “Women in State Legislatures 2019,” accessed 6 January 2020, https://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-state-legislature-2019.
13Catherine Dean May, Oral History Interview, 1 March 1979, 9 March 1979 and 20 April 1979, U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (USAFMOC), Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC: 148–149.
14When 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. In 2019, at the opening of the 116th Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York was sworn in at the age of 29, making her the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress.
15For 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.
16Jane Mansbridge, “The Many Faces of Representation,” Working Paper, 1998, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Jane Mansbridge, “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes,’” Journal of Politics 61 (1999): 628–657.
17Patsy T. Mink, Oral History Interview, 6 March 1979, 26 March 1979, and 7 June 1979, USAFMOC, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC: 43.
18Susan 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.
19For a list of women Members who have served in party leadership, see Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women in Party Leadership Positions, 1949–Present.”
20Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Who Have Chaired Committees in the U.S. House, 1923–Present;” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Who Have Chaired Subcommittees of Standing Committees in the U.S. House, 1947–Present.”