Since 1917 each woman who has served in Congress has legislated in a style all her own. Some were out front on issues, while others worked behind the scenes. Some built legislative coalitions, while others went it alone. Some tackled big national issues, while others prioritized constituent services. In this regard, women lawmakers were no different from their male colleagues. In fact, political scientists long ago created a two-part framework—two strategies—that applied to both men and women to help explain how lawmakers exercised influence on Capitol Hill.6 With an “insider” strategy, legislators focused their energy learning parliamentary procedure, building relationships with other Members, and then using those relationships to secure votes. With an “outsider” approach, Members accrued power by appealing to audiences beyond Congress including the media and public opinion. Insiders tended to make deals; outsiders were known to be “more ideological.” Whether a legislator was an insider or an outsider depended on the issue and the lawmaker’s skills and personality.7
But for women Members who served between 1917 and the late twentieth century, choosing a legislative style was not the only difficult decision they had to make. For much of the time women have served in Congress, they have had to contend with rigid institutional barriers and gender discrimination. Until the last several decades, the world of Capitol Hill in which they have served has been shaped and run almost exclusively by men. As a result, Congresswomen who served during the first three generations—and even some in the fourth generation—often had to decide whether to assimilate into that male-dominated political culture, thereby minimizing differences with their male colleagues, or whether to emphasize their status as women Members, partisan spokespeople, or advocates for feminism and “women’s issues”—policies that included childcare and reproductive rights, as well as equal access to education and pay equity on the job. Which is not to say that women who assimilated did not also work on women’s issues. They did. But regardless of which approach women Members chose, many were seen as “surrogate representatives,” meaning they spoke for a cross section of American women beyond the borders of any single district or state.8
With the election of more women to Congress in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, however, those longtime either/or dynamics—either insider or outsider; either assimilate or stand apart—have become less and less essential to understanding the experiences of women on Capitol Hill. Women remain underrepresented in Congress, but in the modern era they have spearheaded landmark legislation, chaired influential committees, and served in the highest and most powerful leadership positions.
The first two generations of women in Congress (1917–1934 and 1935–1954) tried to integrate as knowledgeable, professional insiders.9 Many were widows who were elected to fill seats once held by their late husbands, and they sought to fit as seamlessly as possible into the institution. Mary T. Norton of New Jersey, Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, and Frances Payne Bolton of Ohio generally practiced this approach, achieving considerable success as respected and, at times, influential insiders. Even during these early 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.
The third generation of women in Congress (1955–1976) continued to largely work within the strictures of the institution, but some Congresswomen had started to explore new strategies. For instance, Congresswomen such as Julia Butler 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 K. Sullivan of Missouri—a widow who succeeded her late husband and became the dean of House women, a committee chair, and a leading opponent of efforts to create a Congresswomen’s caucus—sought power in the House without challenging the old ways.
Yet, new Congresswomen who pushed an increasingly feminist agenda during this era defied the status quo. Martha Wright Griffiths of Michigan, first elected in 1954, was a transitional figure. Griffiths was one of the first to truly make a career out of public service, 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 Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned sex discrimination, and the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972—Griffiths attracted media publicity for these issues. She was also the first woman to secure a seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee.
Subsequent Congresswomen in the third and fourth generation (1977–2020)—Members such as Bella Savitzky Abzug of New York, Shirley Anita Chisholm of New York, and Patricia Schroeder of Colorado—embraced a style of advocacy that circumvented custom in the House. Serving as partisan advocates for women and for causes like government transparency, reproductive rights, and the antiwar and arms reduction movements, these Members often took their cases to the court of public opinion. But for some women Members, publicizing key issues meant less time building relationships, shaping legislation, and counting votes behind the scenes. 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 public megaphone 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.”10
The exponential growth in the number of women serving in Congress in the most recent generation has helped them change the culture on Capitol Hill and pursue new legislative initiatives. This is thanks in part to their successful caucus, support from campaign funding organizations such as EMILY’s List, and prominent roles in committee and party leadership.
But the experiences of women in Congress over the last century also suggest that women Members have not followed 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 what have traditionally been defined as 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, which 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 policies. 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 have 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 wondered how legislative norms, the unwritten but widely accepted rules according to which Members conduct business, influence Congress. What, for instance, is the status of junior Members—are they apprentices or the equals of long-serving lawmakers? What sanctions exist for Members who “rock the boat,” and are those penalties frequently applied? Do norms change during an influx of new Members, as with the “Watergate Babies” in 1975 or the “Republican Revolutionaries” in 1995, and, if so, how? More generally, have specific individuals changed the institution of Congress? And, conversely, does the institution change individuals?11
Since Jeannette Rankin’s first election to the House in 1916, a revolution has occurred in the collective work and educational experience, political status, economic clout, and independence from traditional familial roles among women serving in Congress. Most early women Members adapted and avoided directly challenging the social and cultural limitations they faced on Capitol Hill. Or, as Mary Norton would put it: “I’m no lady, I’m a Member of Congress.” Many later women Members, however, chose instead to confront institutional norms and embrace their role as surrogate advocates in order to make Congress accommodate women and their policy interests.
The accumulation of legislative experience gave women Members the confidence to challenge the deep-rooted conventions regulating expectations on Capitol Hill. Millicent Fenwick of New Jersey once described how the restrictive gender roles of the 1950s shaped her initial foray into politics, and how her early legislative initiatives followed what she called “the typical female pattern. I always wanted things in the most foolish, overmodest, hesitant way,” she said. 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.’”12 Legislators such as Fenwick who recognized how such socially constructed gender roles shaped activity in Congress were more prepared to adapt to and navigate the institution. 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.
The changing role of women in American society over the previous century has also shaped the legislative activity and career possibilities of women Members of Congress. Political scientist Irwin Gertzog has identified three distinct legislative roles adopted by women serving in Congress. While not universally applicable, these categories tend to show the extent to which prevailing expectations concerning women in American society influenced the careers of women in Congress. They also show how changing ideas about gender eventually expanded the political space for women in American politics. For Gertzog, the generation of women who served in Congress between 1917 and World War II was composed of the “gentlewoman amateur” 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. Gertzog’s second category, the “neutral professional” of 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 Going Woodhouse of Connecticut, Cecil Murray Harden of Indiana, and Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who later became a Senator. And thirdly, as described by Gertzog, 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 such as education, health care, and gender equality—legislators such as Representatives Griffiths and Patsy Takemoto Mink of Hawaii, and other House Members who eventually moved on to the Senate, such as Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland and Barbara Boxer of California.13
These patterns are 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 family connection was the most common route to political office. A large percentage of these Members 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 had trained as a lawyer. Women Members of the 1920s were regularly viewed as a curiosity by their male colleagues and the national press, which devoted considerable attention to their arrival in Washington. Most widows elected to Congress, however, were never really given the chance to integrate into the institution because they were expected to be mere placeholders who served the remainder of a term. 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 that dealt with issues traditionally seen as belonging to the women’s sphere, such as education, nursing, and veterans’ affairs. There were notable exceptions, however, such as Florence P. 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.
The second generation of women in Congress, elected from 1935 through 1954, served a long institutional apprenticeship—building up seniority, making inroads, and specializing in committee work, which required years of effort. Many had precongressional careers and experience in elective office, as well as legislative and policy expertise that led to better committee assignments. Powerful male colleagues offered a measure of support, particularly Speakers Sam Rayburn of Texas and Joseph W. Martin Jr. 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 through the ranks by gaining seniority. Some were also selected to party leadership positions 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.
The third generation in Congress, elected between 1955 and 1976, proved to be an important transitional group of lawmakers. Although the number of women in Congress had not significantly increased, women achieved a modest share of influence both in terms of their appointments to powerful committees (including the Ways and Means and Appropriations Committees in the House), and in their ability to break into leadership. 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 VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Rights Amendment. These efforts were supported by women in Congress with near unanimity. More members of this generation came to Congress with previous political and electoral experience than did those with marital or family connections. 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 in numbers and influence. Almost three-quarters of all the women who have served in Congress were elected during this period. Early in this generation, women Members organized a special caucus devoted to developing legislation on women’s issues and educating the public and Congress about those priorities. The number of women in Congress essentially doubled in the 1992 elections, and continued to climb steadily into the early twenty-first century. Moreover, the women elected to Congress beginning in the second half of the twentieth century were increasingly diverse. As of the start of the 116th Congress in January 2019, 12 Asian-American women have been elected since Mink in 1964 and 46 African-American women have served since Chisholm in 1968. In 1989 Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was the first Hispanic-American woman elected to Congress. Nineteen more Hispanic-American women were elected in the next 29 years. Finally, in 1992, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois became the first woman of color to win election to the Senate.
As the roster of women Members grew during the fourth generation, women attained assignments on a wider range of committees as well as on more-influential committees. Especially in the House, where incumbents have a long-standing advantage running for re-election, women Members who served multiple terms often acquired seniority and chaired or became Ranking Members on committees and, particularly, subcommittees. They also began a rapid ascent into the ranks of congressional leadership in both parties and in both chambers. In 2001 California’s Nancy Pelosi began her historic climb up the leadership ladder in the House when she won the position of Democratic Whip, followed by her election as Democratic Leader in 2002 and her election as the first woman Speaker of the House in 2007. By 2019 she had led House Democrats for nearly two decades—a feat surpassed only by the legendary Sam Rayburn. In that same time span, Republican women also made history, with Deborah D. Pryce of Ohio and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington winning election as GOP Conference chairs from 2003 to 2007 and 2013 to 2019, respectively. At the opening of the 116th Congress, Wyoming’s Liz Cheney succeeded Rodgers as conference chair. Pryce, Rogers, and Cheney are the three highest-ranking GOP women in House history.
6See, for example, Nelson W. Polsby, “Two Strategies of Influence: Choosing a Majority Leader, 1962,” in New Perspectives on the House of Representatives, 4th ed., ed. Robert L. Peabody and Nelson W. Polsby (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992): 260–290.
7Polsby, “Two Strategies of Influence: Choosing a Majority Leader, 1962”: 282.
8See, 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.
9Irwin N. Gertzog, Congressional Women: Their Recruitment, Integration, and Behavior, 2nd ed. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995): 254–257.
10Ingrid 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 Richard Fenno, “U.S. House Members in Their Constituencies: An Exploration,” American Political Science Review 71, part 2 (September 1977): 898. See also Ralph K. Huitt and Robert L. Peabody, Congress: Two Decades of Analysis (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1969): 170.
11For 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 ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989) and Ross K. Baker, House and Senate, 3rd ed. (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, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1985): 75–80.
12Judy Bacharach, “Millicent Fenwick,” 23 February 1975, Washington Post: H1.
13Gertzog, Congressional Women: 243–264, especially 251.