Legislative Styles

Historically, observers of Congress have studied the ways lawmakers have exercised strategic influence through the use of “insider” and “outsider” legislative roles.7 The insider influences colleagues by earning their trust and respect through one-on-one contact and personal persuasion by being accessible, performing favors, and ceaselessly networking. The outsider route accrues power by appealing to external sources like the media and public opinion and most often favors “a more ideological, issue oriented” approach than that of the insider.8

The legislative approach of women Members of Congress has not fit seamlessly into these categories. Many women Members have followed one of two approaches, one, assimilating into the institution and minimizing gender differences by de-emphasizing “women’s issues” or, two, stressing their role as partisan spokespersons or advocates for feminism and “women’s issues.” The latter style often involved “surrogate” representation, meaning a Congresswoman spoke for a cross section of American women beyond the borders of her district or state.9 These contrasting legislative styles reveal a constant tension among women Members about the best way to promote women’s political participation.

Edith Nourse Rogers Lapel Pin/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_intro_7_Rogerspin_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts first came to Congress in 1925. In her subsequent 17 re-election campaigns, she was returned to the House by increasingly large margins, and rose through the ranks to chair the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
This book chronicles four successive generations of Congresswomen whose legislative approach evolved as perceptions about gender roles changed over time and new opportunities emerged. The first two generations of women in Congress (1917–1934 and 1935–1954) tried to integrate themselves as knowledgeable, “professional” insiders.10 Chiefly, they aimed to fit as seamlessly as possible into the institution. Mary T. Norton of New Jersey, Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, and Frances Bolton of Ohio practiced this approach, achieving considerable success as respected and, at times, influential insiders. Even during these first generations, however, there were exceptions to the rule, particularly in the careers of Clare Boothe Luce of Connecticut and Helen Gahagan Douglas of California. Both Luce and Douglas used the celebrity they had achieved before they came to Congress to act as national spokeswomen for their respective parties and legislative interests: Luce was a critic of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration’s policies during wartime, and Douglas was an advocate for postwar liberal causes like civil rights.

By the third generation of women in Congress (1955–1976), the trend for Congresswomen to work inside the institution was still prevalent. Among the more successful Congresswomen in this regard were Julia Hansen of Washington, who became the first woman to chair an Appropriations subcommittee and headed an influential internal reforms committee in the 1970s, and Leonor Sullivan of Missouri, a widow who succeeded her late husband, became the dean of House women, a committee chair, and a leading opponent of efforts to create a Congresswomen’s caucus.

Yet, changes were afoot because of an influx of Congresswomen who pushed an increasingly feminist agenda. Martha Griffiths of Michigan, first elected in 1954, was a transitional figure. Griffiths was one of the first truly career-oriented Congresswomen, having been a state legislator and judge in Michigan before she was elected to the House. A forceful advocate for the causes she championed, particularly the sexual discrimination clause in Title 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972, she attracted media publicity for these issues. Griffiths was also the first woman to secure a seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee.

Congresswomen at a Press Conference/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_intro_8_1977Pressconference_HousePhotography.xml Image courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives Photography Office Congresswomen in the 1970s frequently united to gain greater exposure for common platforms, and organized issues-focused press conferences such as this one held in 1977 in the Capitol.
Subsequent Congresswomen in the third generation and fourth generation (1977–present), for example, Bella Abzug of New York, Shirley Chisholm of New York, and Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, firmly embraced a style of advocacy that tended more toward the outsider approach. Serving as partisan advocates for women and for special causes including reproductive rights, antiwar and arms reduction agendas, and government transparency, these Members often took their cases to the court of public opinion rather than working to shape legislation behind the scenes. Though successful at publicizing key issues, the outsider approach had its drawbacks. For many women Members, it complicated the process of crafting legislation and moving it through to completion by undermining their ability to rally colleagues to their cause through more subtle tactics. An illustrative example is that of Helen Douglas, who had little patience for adapting to the institutional traditions on Capitol Hill and even less of an inclination to master legislative processes. “Helen could not have gotten a bill passed making December 25th a holiday,” recalled Ed Lybeck, her campaign manager. But, Lybeck noted, because Congresswoman Douglas used her celebrity to bring public attention to key liberal issues in the late 1940s, “she was a light in the window for liberals at a time when things were very dark.”11

Women in the latest generation have the numbers and ability to drive a legislative agenda, in part, because of their successful caucus. This, along with their increased power on committees and in leadership positions, suggests that women Members are in a better position than ever to navigate an “insider” route to influence. Their choice to pursue an insider or outsider strategy, however, will be affected by their legislative agendas as much as by their personal styles. An insider strategy, for example, is often the most effective for routine legislative issues, such as modifying the tax code or securing appropriations for a district project, whereas an outsider strategy that mobilizes the media, interest groups, and public opinion is often preferable when a Member seeks to introduce a new idea or an issue that is strongly resisted in Congress.

What the insider–outsider divide also suggests, if tangentially, is that women Members have not had a single-track legislative agenda. In fact, for most of the time they have been in Congress, women have purposely eschewed (or been unable to sustain) a narrow focus on women’s issues. The ability to publicize and legislate on women’s issues was a relatively late development signaled by the creation of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues in 1977, and it met with considerable resistance even among women Members. The success of the women’s caucus as a bipartisan mechanism for pushing health, education, and economic legislation important to women occurred at a time when women Members had attained committee assignments across a spectrum of jurisdictions and legislative interests. Thus, women Members had access to the public forum to promote legislation important to American women as well as the unprecedented ability to legislate on virtually every facet of American life, including international relations, military affairs, commerce and industry, technology, and education.

To implement their agenda, women Members had to navigate a complex web of party politics, fundraising, and social and cultural expectations, as well as a highly structured institutional framework. Political scientists have often sought to determine the effects on Congress of legislative norms, the unwritten, but widely accepted, rules according to which Members conduct business: Which informal “folkways,” such as apprenticeship and issue specialization, existed? How did Members who resisted these traditions fare in relation to those who accepted them? Did these norms change over time, especially during the influx of new membership, as with the “Watergate Babies” in 1975 or the “Republican Revolutionaries” in 1995? And, more generally, has the institution of Congress been changed by individuals, or has individuals’ integration into the institution changed them?12

In the 100 years since Jeannette Rankin’s election in 1916, a revolution occurred in terms of Congresswomen’s collective work, educational experience, political status, economic clout, and independence from traditional familial roles. Most early women in Congress clearly adapted to the institution and avoided direct challenges to the social and cultural limitations they faced within the institution. Many latter women Members chose instead to defy institutional norms or to embrace their role as surrogate advocates for all women.

Legislative experience engendered confidence to challenge the deep-rooted conventions regulating the actions of women in Congress. Millicent Fenwick of New Jersey described the way her initial foray into politics was shaped by the prevailing gender roles of the 1950s. She lamented the confines of the social expectations of that decade, describing her attempts to achieve legislative goals as following what was considered “the typical female pattern. I always wanted things in the most foolish, overmodest, hesitant way.” Her work as a state legislator and official changed her approach. “I finally learned that when a man wants more he says, ‘Listen, George, I want a bit of the action,’” Fenwick observed. “Well, [women have] been taught: ‘You have to wait to be invited to dance.’”13 Women who recognized the ways legislative activity was shaped by socially constructed gender roles were more prepared to adapt to and navigate the institution of Congress. In this sense, it is impossible to separate the history of women in Congress from larger social and historical movements that shaped the course of U.S. history.

Barbara Mikulski/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_intro_9_Mikulskiphoto_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives Barbara Mikulski of Maryland served in the U.S. House for a decade, and she was a founding member of the Congresswomen’s Caucus before she won election to the U.S. Senate in 1986.
The changing role of women in American society has been influential in shaping the legislative activity and career possibilities of women Members of Congress. Political scientist Irwin Gertzog has identified the development of three distinct legislative roles adopted by women serving in Congress. While not universally applicable, these trends reflect the influence of the prevailing social and cultural expectations concerning women in American society as well as the way changing ideas about gender roles circumscribed and expanded the extant political space for women in American politics. Gertzog characterizes the “gentlewoman amateur” in the period roughly between 1917 and World War II as a woman whose route to political office depended more on her matrimonial connections than on her political savvy or qualifications. Early southern widows best exemplified this role.

The “neutral professional” in the 1940s and 1950s had some precongressional political experience and a measure of legislative success, but consciously avoided women’s issues. This legislative role was exemplified by Representatives Norton, Chase Woodhouse of Connecticut, Cecil Harden of Indiana, and Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who later became a Senator. The modern “feminist colleague” from the 1960s onward insisted on equality with male colleagues, gained important committee assignments and leadership roles, and developed an agenda on women’s issues. Women such as Representatives Griffiths and Patsy Mink of Hawaii, and other House Members who eventually moved on to the Senate, such as Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Barbara Boxer of California, possessed these traits.14

These patterns are readily apparent among the successive generations of women Members. For the pioneer generation of Congresswomen, who came into office between 1917 and 1934, a marital or other familial connection was the most common route to political office. A large percentage of them were widows who succeeded their late husbands and most lacked experience in elective office. Only one, Kathryn O’Loughlin McCarthy of Kansas, had experience as a state legislator. McCarthy was also the only first-generation woman in Congress who was trained as a lawyer. Women Members of the 1920s were viewed as a curiosity by their male colleagues and the national press, which devoted considerable attention to their arrival in Washington. Most Congresswomen, however, were never really given the chance to integrate into the institution. Unable to serve on powerful committees, they were relegated to panels tending to the routine upkeep of federal agencies or of Congress itself. Most women served on committees with oversight of issues considered as belonging to the women’s sphere, such as education, nursing, and veterans’ affairs. However, there were notable exceptions, such as Florence Kahn of California, who served on the Appropriations Committee; Mary Norton, who served on the Labor Committee; and Ruth Hanna McCormick of Illinois, who served on the Naval Affairs Committee.

Women Members of the 83rd Congress/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_intro_10_83rdCongress_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The women in the 83rd Congress (1953–1955), eight of whom are pictured here, represented the range of experience and interests typical of the second generation of Congresswomen, those elected from 1935 to 1954. Pictured here (front row, left to right) are Edna Kelly of New York; Katherine St. George of New York; Gracie Pfost of Idaho; Ruth Thompson of Michigan; (second row, left to right) Maude Elizabeth Kee of West Virginia; Leonor Sullivan of Missouri; Vera Buchanan of Pennsylvania; and Marguerite Church of Illinois. Some were widows of Members, some had earlier legislative experience, and some arrived with expertise in foreign or domestic policy.
The second generation of women in Congress, elected from 1935 through 1954, served a long institutional apprenticeship. Once the initial interest in their participation in Congress subsided, women Members slowly made inroads. More of them had precongressional careers and experience in elective office, qualifying them for better committee assignments and more areas of legislative expertise. Powerful male colleagues offered a measure of support, particularly Speakers Sam Rayburn of Texas and Joe Martin of Massachusetts, who promoted women to prominent committee assignments. For the first time, women were assigned to influential committees, such as Agriculture, Judiciary, and Armed Services in the House. In the Senate, Margaret Chase Smith won a position on the influential Armed Services Committee. Under the tutelage of senior Congresswomen, the second generation preferred to integrate into the institution and work its way up through the ranks by gaining seniority. Some were selected to leadership positions in the official organizations of Democrats and Republicans in both chambers: Representative Sullivan served as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus in the 1950s and 1960s, and Senator Smith chaired the Senate Republican Conference from 1967 to 1973.

Shirley Chisholm Campaign Poster/tiles/non-collection/W/WIC_intro_11_Chisholmposter_HC.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
After taking her seat in 1969, Shirley Chisholm of New York, the first African-American woman in Congress, continued to push boundaries and ran for president in 1972. Her slogan—“Unbought and Unbossed”—reminded voters of her independence and outspokenness.
The third generation in Congress, first elected between 1955 and 1976, proved to be an important transition. Although the number of women in Congress had not significantly increased, women had achieved a modest share of influence both in terms of appointments to powerful committees, such as the Ways and Means and Appropriations Committees in the House, and in terms of initial strides toward breaking into leadership. More important, the years from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s marked a major social and cultural revolution in American society, as women demanded economic, political, and social equality with men. A new wave of feminists in Congress sought economic and constitutional equality through such legislative undertakings as the gender clause in Title 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Rights Amendment. These efforts were supported by women in Congress with near unanimity. For the first time in half a century, the number of women Members who came to Congress with experience in elective office exceeded the number who came to Congress by way of a marital or familial connection.

The third generation also included Representatives Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress in 1964, and Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first African-American woman elected to Congress.

The fourth generation of women in Congress, those elected after 1977, enjoyed unprecedented growth and influence. Two-thirds of the women who have served in Congress were elected during this period. Women Members organized a special caucus solely devoted to developing legislation on women’s issues and to educating the public and Congress about them. The numbers of women in Congress soared, essentially doubling in the 1992 elections, and continued to climb steadily into the early 21st century. In January 1977, 18 women served in the House and none served in the Senate. In addition, the women elected to Congress were increasingly diverse, as nine Asian-American women were elected since 1964 and 38 African-American women since 1969. In 1989 Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was the first Hispanic-American woman elected to Congress. Ten more Hispanic-American women were elected in the next 27 years. Finally, in 1992 Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois became the first woman of color to be elected to the Senate. By the middle of the 114th Congress (2015–2017) in 2016, there was an unprecedented number of women in Congress, as 88 women served in the House and 20 in the Senate. As the roster of women Members grew during the fourth generation, they were able to attain assignments on more-influential committees. Especially in the House, where incumbents have a long-standing advantage in re-election campaigns, women Members who were elected and decided to stay were better able to acquire more seniority and to chair or become Ranking Members on more committees and, particularly, subcommittees. They also began a rapid ascent into the ranks of congressional leadership in both parties and in both chambers.

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7See, for example, Nelson W. Polsby’s article “Two Strategies of Influence: Choosing a Majority Leader, 1962,” reprinted in Robert L. Peabody and Nelson W. Polsby, eds., New Perspectives on the House of Representatives, 4th edition (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992): 260–290.

8Peabody and Polsby, New Perspectives on the House of Representatives: 282.

9See, for example, Jane 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.

10Irwin Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior, 2nd edition (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 254–257.

11Ingrid Winther Scobie, Center Stage: Helen Gahagan Douglas—A Life (New York: Oxford, 1992): xv–xvi. See also Richard Fenno, Home Style: House Members in Their Districts (Boston: Little, Brown, 1978). Elsewhere Fenno has written, “Dramatic analogies are appropriate to politics because politicians, like actors, perform before audiences and are legitimized by their audiences”; see his “U.S. House Members and Their Constituencies: An Exploration,” American Political Science Review 71, part 2 (September 1977): 898. See also Ralph Huitt and Robert L. Peabody, Congress: Two Decades of Analysis (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1969): 170.

12For studies that have addressed aspects of the question of institutional versus individual change, see Donald R. Matthews, U.S. Senators and Their World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960), especially the chapter “Folkways of the U.S. Senate.” See also Morris Fiorina, Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment, 2nd edition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989) and Ross K. Baker, House and Senate, 3rd edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001). On the issue of changing norms and traditions, see Herbert F. Weisberg, Eric S. Heberlig, and Lisa M. Campoli, Classics in Congressional Politics (New York: Longman, 1999): especially 192–200; and Glenn R. Parker, Studies of Congress (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1985): 75–80.

13Judy Bacharach, “Millicent Fenwick,” 23 February 1975, Washington Post: H1.

14Gertzog, Congressional Women: 243–264, especially 251.