Onto the National Stage: Congresswomen in an Age of Crisis, 1935-1954

Thirty-six women entered Congress for the first time between 1935 and 1954, a tumultuous two decades that encompassed the Great Depression, World War II, and the start of the Cold War. Women participated in America’s survival, recovery, and ascent to world power in important and unprecedented ways; they became shapers of the welfare state, workers during wartime, and members of the military. Decisions made in the nation’s capital during this era took on increasing importance in the everyday lives of average Americans. The Great Depression and the specter of global war transformed the role of the federal government, making it a provider and protector. Like their male counterparts, women in Congress legislated to provide economic relief to their constituents, debated the merits of government intervention to help the economy, argued about America’s role in world affairs, and grappled with challenges and opportunities during wartime.

Three women in Congress confer in the hallway/tiles/non-collection/E/Essay2_1_lawmaker_huddle_LC-1.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Three women who chaired congressional committees meet in the Capitol in 1937. From left to right: Arkansas Senator Hattie Wyatt Caraway and Representatives Caroline O’Day of New York and Mary T. Norton of New Jersey.
Distinct trends among the second generation of women in Congress carried over from the pioneer generation (1917–1934). Notably, women still made up only a small fraction of the total congressional membership. At their peak, 15 women served in the 83rd Congress (1953–1955), less than 3 percent of the combined membership of the U.S. House and Senate. These numbers meant women had little collective leverage to pursue a unified agenda, and few seemed inclined to champion what were traditionally seen as “women’s issues”—education, employment, childcare, reproductive rights, and health care. The widow-familial succession also remained a primary route for women to enter political office.

Subtle changes, however, slowly advanced women’s status on Capitol Hill. By and large, women elected to Congress between 1935 and 1954 had more experience as politicians or as party officials than did their predecessors. In the postwar era, they were appointed more often to influential committees, including those with jurisdiction over military affairs, the judiciary, and agriculture. In a significant break from tradition, several women emerged as national figures and were prominently featured as spokespersons by their parties.

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