Women in Congress: An Introduction

HJ Res 1, proposing an amendment to the Constitution extending voting rights to women/tiles/non-collection/I/Intro_1_HJRes1_NARA-1.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
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House Joint Resolution 1, proposing an amendment to the Constitution extending voting rights to women, was introduced in the House on May 19, 1919.
Early in the afternoon on May 21, 1919, Representative James Robert Mann of Illinois called up the first measure of the 66th Congress (1919–1921), House Joint Resolution 1.1 Widely known as the Susan B. Anthony amendment, H.J. Res. 1 was named for one of America’s foremost women’s rights champions. It was only 39 words long, but it was revolutionary in its intent and sweeping despite its brevity: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

A similar women’s suffrage amendment had passed the House more than a year earlier in the 65th Congress (1917–1919), with Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Congress, opening debate on the floor. But that bill had died in the Senate. With the opening of the 66th Congress, H.J. Res. 1 renewed the effort on Capitol Hill to enshrine a right that women across America had waged a decades-long fight for: the right to vote.

Following a brief debate on May 21, the House voted in favor of H.J. Res. 1, 304 to 89, with one Member voting present.2 Two weeks later, the Senate cleared the amendment 56 to 25.3 It took nearly 15 months for the required three-fourths of the states to ratify the amendment, but on August 26, 1920, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby officially added the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Women had won the right to vote nationwide.

Gallery Pass Signed by Jeannette Rankin/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_intro_5_Rankingallerypass_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Montana Representative Jeannette Rankin’s promotion of women’s rights extended to filling the House Visitors’ Galleries with supporters. On June 6, 1917, she provided this gallery pass to Kentucky suffrage leader Alice White.
On January 3, 2019, a century after women’s suffrage became law, the 116th Congress (2019–2021) convened. A record 131 women Members took the Oath of Office—106 in the House (including three Delegates and the Resident Commissioner) and 25 in the Senate. The Members serving in the 116th Congress are more than one third of the 366 women who have been elected or appointed to Congress. All but one—Jeannette Rankin—have been elected since the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. As of 2019, women have served from 49 of 50 states (Vermont is the exception) and five territories. Women have also held leadership posts across Capitol Hill, including Nancy Pelosi of California who has served as Speaker of the House for multiple terms and has led her party for 18 years, among the longest tenure of any party leader in House history.4

This book is divided into two major parts. Part One documents the lives and careers of former women in Congress and is split into four sections. Each section covers a successive generation of lawmakers and includes individual biographies—arranged in chronological order of election—of every Congresswoman who served during these periods. Each section also features an essay that helps explain and contextualize both the policy issues and major events in American history during the period in which they served. The first section includes women elected to Congress between 1917 and 1934 and covers the period from World War I to the Great Depression. The second section features women elected to Congress between 1935 and 1954, a period covering the Great Depression, World War II, and the start of the Cold War. The third section consists of the women elected between 1955 and 1976, and spans the period in history from the modern civil rights and women’s rights movements to the major congressional reforms following the Watergate Scandal. And finally, the fourth section examines the careers of women in Congress who served from 1977 to the present. Part Two of the book profiles the current Members of the 116th Congress.

The essays and Member profiles in this book explore a number of themes regarding the vast scope of a century of women in Congress: how women Representatives and Senators shaped Capitol Hill’s political culture and traditions; how some women worked to change Congress and others adapted to the institution; the ways in which Congress and its Members resisted the participation of women Members; the shared experiences of Congresswomen despite their different legislative agendas and political ideologies; and, ultimately, how women Members exercised power from the seat of America’s government.5

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Footnotes

1Congressional Record, House, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (21 May 1919): 78; Herbert F. Margulies, Reconciliation and Revival: James R. Mann and the House Republicans in the Wilson Era (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996): 199.

2House Journal, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (21 May 1919): 42.

3Senate Journal, 66th Cong., 1st sess. (4 June 1919): 51.

4Jeannette Rankin of Montana was elected to the House of Representatives in November 1916, almost four years before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. Eleven of the 48 states provided for women’s suffrage in 1916. For a list of women in Congress by state and territory, see Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Representatives and Senators by State and Territory, 1917–Present” https://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Data/Women-Representatives-and-Senators-by-State-and-Territory/. For more information on House Speakers, see Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Speakers of the House, (1789 to Present),” https://history.house.gov/People/Office/Speakers-Intro/.

5The closing date for this volume was April 1, 2020, during the 116th Congress.