I’m No Lady; I’m a Member of Congress: Women Pioneers on Capitol Hill, 1917-1934

The era of women in Congress began on April 2, 1917, when Montana’s Jeannette Rankin was sworn in as a Member of the House of Representatives. It was a bit of an inauspicious start, however: 18 months after taking the Oath of Office, Rankin lost election to the U.S. Senate in November 1918, and no woman won a seat in either chamber during that election cycle. But then, in August 1920, three months before the 1920 elections, the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote was added to the Constitution. Millions of women voted for the first time that fall. Rankin may have been the only woman to have won election to Congress before the Nineteenth Amendment, but, starting with the 67th Congress (1921–1923), women have held seats in every Congress since.

March 1917 Cover of The Suffragist/tiles/non-collection/E/Essay1_1_The_Suffragist_March_31_1917_Cover-sewall-belmont-1.xml Image courtesy of the National Woman’s Party Collection at the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, Washington, DC The March 31, 1917, cover of The Suffragist features an illustration by Nina E. Allender titled “Come to Mother.” The drawing portrays Montana Representative Jeannette Rankin as a “mother” to women’s suffrage. A little girl, embodying the proposed Nineteenth Amendment, reaches for Rankin’s supportive embrace.
In the two decades following Rankin’s first victory and the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, pioneering women Members etched their names into congressional history: in 1918 Rankin became the first woman to manage a bill on the House Floor; in 1923 Mae Ella Nolan of California became the first woman to chair a committee (House Committee on Expenditures in the Post Office); in 1926 Florence P. Kahn of California, Mary T. Norton of New Jersey, and Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts became the first women re-elected to Congress; in 1932 Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman elected to the Senate; and in 1933 Kahn became the first woman appointed to a major committee (Appropriations).1

Nevertheless, women were still a distinct minority in Congress; at their peak, nine served in the 71st Congress (1929–1931). Without the numbers and committee seniority often required to build legislative coalitions, this first generation of women on Capitol Hill faced institutional prejudices and could only see their ability to lead Congress as an elusive dream. These adversities raise several questions about the experiences of this generation: What routes did these pioneer women take to win election to Congress? How did they relate to the women’s rights movement in America? Once they arrived in Congress, what agendas did they pursue? What were their legislative interests and committee assignments? What changes did they effect on Capitol Hill? And, finally, were they able or even inclined to craft a unique identity for themselves?

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1Mae Ella Nolan of California simultaneously won election on January 23, 1923, to f ill out her late husband’s term in the 67th Congress (1921–1923) and to a full term in the 68th Congress (1923–1925). Her single campaign is not counted as a separate re-election race.