Shared Experiences of Women in Congress
Although women in Congress have displayed distinctive traits in each generation, they have shared a number of experiences that united them across the decades. One pattern, called the “widow’s mandate,” was once an important route for women to attain congressional office, especially women in the first three generations.14 Between 1917 and 1976, 95 women served in the House and the Senate and more than a third (34) were widows who were elected or appointed to succeed their late husbands. A chief commonality among widows in Congress has been the brevity of their service; half of the congressional widows elected to office served one term or less. This trend was particularly prevalent among widows from the South (14 of whom served one term or less); they were often nominated by their parties to serve as temporary placeholders until a male successor could take office.15 When additional familial connections are considered, the percentages are even more startling. Up until 1976, 46 percent of all women Members had a family connection to Congress.
Still, the widow’s mandate clearly has been in decline in recent decades. Among the third and fourth generations, ever-greater numbers of Congresswomen drew on their own experience in elective office. Moreover, the influence of the widow’s mandate, real and perceived, has been magnified by the fact that historically an unusually high number of women who received party nominations to run for their husbands’ former seats won their general elections. From 1923 through 2016, 80 percent of House widows who were nominated to run for seats held by their husbands won their elections.16 That success rate is far higher than the winning percentage for women elected to the House who were neither incumbents nor widows. Through 1992, for example, just 14 percent of these women won their elections.17
Family obligations and social expectations concerning a woman’s role in the family contributed to another shared experience among women in Congress. Congresswomen from the pioneer generation onward have striven to balance the demands of their private family life—and public perceptions about those demands—with those of their public careers. This added responsibility has not been traditionally incumbent on their male colleagues. More so than their predecessors, the third and fourth generations of women to enter Congress served with young children. But motherhood also provided these Congresswomen with unique legislative insights. Representative Emily Taft Douglas of Illinois understood well how family responsibilities could affect women’s participation in politics. Douglas was elected to the House in 1944 as the mother of an 11-year-old daughter while her husband, Paul, who later became a U.S. Senator, was overseas in the military. “What everybody needs to make a good race is a good wife,” Congresswoman Douglas observed. “Now that’s where a woman is handicapped. When a man goes into politics and wins his wife is happy and proud to pull up stakes, corral her children, and move to the designated center of government. But a woman’s position is different, in that her husband often has a business, she has her home to maintain, and her children are established in school.”18
The power of the traditional notion of a woman’s role as wife, mother, and caregiver is aptly illustrated by the career of Representative Coya Knutson of Minnesota. Elected to Congress in 1954, Knutson emerged as a promising advocate for education reform and agricultural issues. Her career was destroyed in 1958, however, when her abusive and jealous husband falsely accused her of abandoning the family—an especially powerful accusation in 1950s America. Most women Members of Congress were not confronted with such direct attacks, but many, especially those who were young or unmarried, faced subtle and unsubtle discrimination on the campaign trail from male political opponents who stressed their roles as fathers and family men. Women faced doubters even within their own ranks. Shortly after Patricia Schroeder’s 1972 election to the House, one of her feminist woman colleagues asked how she planned to raise her toddlers and simultaneously advance in her congressional career.19
Each new generation of Congresswomen has faced obstacles preventing their equal participation in the national legislature. Congress has been exceptionally resistant to accommodating the rising number of women working on Capitol Hill, and early women Members lacked basic necessities. It was not until the 1960s, for instance, that women Members secured bathroom facilities and a private space of their own, but even those facilities were a distance from the House Floor; it took women in the Senate three more decades to get access to a similar space. Into the 1980s, Congresswomen had limited access to the congressional gym and exercise facilities originally built for men. In the late 2010s, House leaders installed nursing stations and baby changing tables for Members and staff with young children. The House has also expanded its daycare services at the urging of Congresswomen to attract and keep staff with young families.20
Congresswomen also understood that motherhood and family duties provided them with a unique perspective on legislation that was not always prioritized by Congressmen. Some embraced conventional gender roles linking women to consumer issues and child-rearing. For instance, Woodhouse emphasized the way motherhood fostered her capacity for empathy and understanding. “I am sure I became a finer Congresswoman for being a mother,” she said. “It gave me a better understanding of people’s problems. Yes, there were conflicts. Yes, I was thought of as a peculiar creature. But the kids were my motivation.… They become in the end the reason for striving.”21
Barbara Bailey Kennelly of Connecticut went even further to emphasize how policy debates change when more women serve as legislators. Kennelly stressed that it was “terribly important” for women to be appointed to influential committees, such as Ways and Means. “You bring a whole new aspect to issues. Your arguments can be very, very different. You’ve lived life as a woman, and that brings a different set of experiences.” Kennelly added that women traversed different segments of the workforce, such as health care and community services, and that their social networks were more likely to foster empathy for the difficulties faced by working mothers—all of which allowed women to “bring a whole other approach to legislation,” she said. “There are many, many, many ways women and men are the same and in many, many, many ways we’re very different.”22
Finally, women in Congress have shared the experience of being a minority on Capitol Hill, regardless of whether they were one-term widows or accomplished committee chairs, whether they were Democrats or Republicans, or whether they had family responsibilities in addition to their professional responsibilities. But the growing numerical strength of women in Congress, coupled with changing expectations about gender roles in American society, considerably altered the congressional experience of women since the early 1990s.23
Over the years, structural factors constrained the ability of women Members to implement their legislative agendas and achieve positions of power. The House and Senate are vastly different legislative bodies, and Congresswomen’s experiences have varied depending on the peculiarities of the chamber in which they served.24 In addition to differences in membership and parliamentary procedure, the opportunity to serve on committees, the requirements for election, and the availability of institutional support have affected women’s careers in Congress. The size of the House (435 Members, 5 Delegates, and a Resident Commissioner) means that Members usually receive only one or two committee assignments, allowing all Members to develop greater legislative expertise and policy specialization. The smaller size of the Senate (100 members), however, means that each Senator sits on far more committees than his or her colleagues in the House. As a result, Senators tend to be generalists rather than specialists.25
In the last two decades, women in the House have had more female predecessors and colleagues and, consequently, more mentors. Before 1992, 116 women had served in the House and only 18 had served in the Senate (and 11 of those 18 Senators served just long enough to finish the remainder of their predecessors’ terms). As late as the 95th Congress (1977–1979), there were no women serving in the Senate, and even into the 1990s, women in the Senate were the exception rather than the rule. For much of the twentieth century, only one or two women served simultaneously in that chamber; there was virtually no female support institutionally. By contrast, from 1951 onward, a minimum of 10 women served in the House at the same time, enough to provide, if not an issues caucus, then at least a network for advice and a forum to exchange ideas and build camaraderie. Moreover, long-serving deans in this group, among them Mary Norton, Frances Bolton, and Leonor Sullivan, tried to build a spirit of cooperation and collegiality among senior and junior women Members. It comes as no surprise that House Members who went on to the Senate brought that sense of community with them. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who spent 10 years in the House and 30 years in the Senate, hosted lunches for women lawmakers of both parties in the 1990s that gave new Senators a place to learn and to test ideas and proposals.
Women had remained a marginalized minority for decades, convincing committee chairs and congressional leadership to assign them to key committees only since the 1950s in the House and since the 1980s in the Senate. But over the last three decades, women in Congress have experienced dramatic gains in terms of numerical representation, committee and subcommittee chair appointments, and leadership positions. The change largely started in 1992 when the number of women elected to Congress in that single election exceeded the total number of women elected or appointed to Congress in any previous decade.26 The trend only accelerated from there. More than 60 percent of all the women who have served in congressional history were first elected or appointed between 1992 and 2018. As a result of their electoral victories, women in Congress have seen their influence grow rapidly in the last decade. For instance, in 2007 women led 22 House subcommittees; at the opening of the 116th Congress in 2019, that number stood at 39.27 In addition, women chaired seven House committees in 2019, more than in any prior Congress.28
After a century of change, women now participate in unprecedented ways at every level of Congress. The increasing number of women on significant committees and in leadership are markers of institutional advancement and underline tangible gains in representation, status, and political power. An array of career possibilities now exist for women Members, even as they continue the fight for equal treatment. After Rankin’s brief, isolated experience in the 65th Congress, several generations of women have successfully forged a new political culture that has steadily opened space for women to pursue personal, partisan, and institutional advancement in American politics.
14Irwin N. Gertzog is a leading analyst of the “matrimonial connection.” See his discussion in Gertzog, Congressional Women: 17–36. See also his early analysis, Irwin N. Gertzog, “Changing Patterns of Female Recruitment to the U.S. House of Representatives,” Legislative Studies Quarterly IV (no. 3, August 1979): 429–445.
15There have been, of course, notable exceptions. Several widows created in the public mind an enduring image of the prototypical widow successor. They readily adapted to the institution because of extensive experience with their husbands’ agendas and subsequently distinguished themselves. For instance, Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts (who served from 1925 to 1960) was a widow who succeeded her late husband, John Rogers. Several other widows exercised considerable influence in Congress for many years, in some cases more than their husbands, such as Florence P. Kahn of California (1925–1937), Frances Payne Bolton of Ohio (1940–1969), Margaret Chase Smith of Maine (1940–1973), and Corinne Claiborne (Lindy) Boggs of Louisiana (1973–1991).
16Gertzog, Congressional Women: 34. As of 2016, 38 out of 47 congressional widows were successful at winning the party nomination and the election to succeed their late husbands. See Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Familial Connections of Women Representatives and Senators in Congress.”
17Gertzog, Congressional Women: 20–21.
18Martha Rhyne, “The Douglas Duo Raps Feminine Refusal to Accept Political Role,” 25 February 1945, Washington Post: S1.
19“The Honorable Patricia Scott Schroeder Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (3 June 2015). The interview transcript is available online.
20Rachael Bade, “‘Congress Wasn’t Built for Members Like Me,’” 26 November 2018, Politico, https://www.politico.com/story/2018/11/26/congress-new-members-women-1014696; Li Zhou, “A Historic New Congress Will Be Sworn in Today,” 3 January 2019, Vox, https://www.vox.com/2018/12/6/18119733/congress-diversity-women-election-good-news.
21Andree Brooks, “A Pioneer Feminist Savors Grandmother Role,” 10 May 1981, New York Times: CN1.
22“The Honorable Barbara Kennelly Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (9 September 2015): 27. The interview transcript is available online.
23Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 1988).
24For a standard reference source on the differences between the structure and operations of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, see Baker, House and Senate.
25Baker, House and Senate: 55, 68–70.
26Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Representatives and Senators by Congress, 1917–Present.” See also, Jennifer E. Manning and Ida A. Brudnick, “Women in Congress, 1917–2015: Biographical and Committee Assignment Information, and Listings by State and Congress,” Report RL30261, 27 April 2015, Congressional Research Service; Jennifer E. Manning and Ida A. Brudnick, “Women in Congress: Statistics and Brief Overview,” Report R43244, 15 January 2020, Congressional Research Service.
27Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Who Have Chaired Subcommittees of Standing Committees in the U.S. House, 1947 to Present.”
28Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Who Have Chaired Committees in the U.S. House, 1923 to Present.”