“One time, we were talking to other female Members and maybe there were three or four of us—two staff people and one or two Members. Male Members would come over to us and say, ‘Oh, what are you girls cooking up? Are you conspiring against us?’ . . . Three or more women . . . on the floor congregating—chatting—would cause concern among the male Members. Were we conspiring against them? What I found so fascinating about this experience is that years later, when I served in the Massachusetts senate [during] my freshman year, I was talking to two other female members. I had male state senators come up to us and say, ‘Are you three conspiring against us?’ I thought, ‘I can’t believe this. It’s happening here in Massachusetts years later—the same thing that happened on the House Floor in Washington.’”
—Linda Melconian, June 7, 2018
Linda Melconian was a recent college graduate when Congressman Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill of Massachusetts hired her in 1971. During the next decade, she worked closely with O’Neill as he moved up the leadership ladder from Majority Whip, to Majority Leader, and, finally, to Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. As one of the first women to hold floor privileges in all three House leadership offices, Melconian offers a unique perspective on floor proceedings, leadership initiatives, and the role of women staff members in the House.
In this oral history, Melconian recalls her path from her hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, to Capitol Hill, where she started as a legislative assistant working on the House Floor for Majority Whip O’Neill. She outlines the structure of the Democratic whip operation, including the role of congressional staff in counting votes and crafting and conveying the message of leadership. She recounts her observations in O’Neill’s office during the Watergate investigation, offering a first-hand account of the way the crisis unfolded on the House Floor.
Melconian also discusses her roles as a speechwriter, researcher, and assistant counsel for O’Neill during his terms as Majority Leader and Speaker. Reflecting on Speaker O’Neill’s efforts to shape the Democratic Party’s agenda during the 1970s, she provides insight into his legislative priorities, leadership style, and his relationship with President Jimmy Carter. She highlights O’Neill’s focus on ethics reform and his foreign policy efforts, from his involvement in the Camp David Accords to his interest in finding a peaceful solution to the political violence in Northern Ireland. She also chronicles her experience on a congressional delegation to Europe in April 1979, where she joined Speaker O’Neill as he visited the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
In 1971, Linda Melconian began her career on Capitol Hill working for Congressman Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill of Massachusetts. Over the next 10 years, she worked as a legislative assistant and assistant counsel as O’Neill served as Majority Whip, Majority Leader, and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. In doing so, she became one of the first women to hold floor privileges in all three House leadership offices and gained valuable political experience that formed the foundation of her own political career.
Linda Melconian was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, the daughter of Virginia Melconian, a homemaker, and George Melconian, a line-type machinist for the local newspapers. She attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she secured an internship on Capitol Hill with Massachusetts Representative Edward Boland. She also worked as an intern for Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine before graduating from college in 1970.
As part of then-Majority Whip O’Neill’s staff, Melconian learned the workings of the institution from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. She represented Whip O’Neill on the House Floor and was educated in the finer points of legislating through her interactions with Members of Congress. She participated in vote-counting and the behind-the-scenes dialogue that shaped important legislation.
When O’Neill became Majority Leader in 1973, Melconian added speechwriting and research to her duties on the House Floor. She also worked to build connections between the Speaker and the Democratic Caucus in anticipation of O’Neill’s future campaign for Speaker by planning district visits and serving as a liaison between Members and the Speaker on legislative matters.
During O’Neill’s Speakership, Melconian was involved in the Speaker’s effort to implement ethics guidelines and revise the seniority system and the committee selection process. She also assisted the Speaker in his forays into U.S. foreign policy, providing information and accompanying him during meetings with visiting dignitaries in Washington, DC, and abroad.
After completing law school at George Mason University, Melconian served as assistant counsel to Speaker O’Neill before returning to Springfield to run for a vacant seat in the Massachusetts state senate in 1981. The following year she won election to the first of 11 terms in the Massachusetts legislature, rising to become the first woman to hold the title of majority leader in the state senate. She resides in Springfield and teaches courses in government and politics at Suffolk University in Boston.
Linda Melconian discusses her first experience on the campaign trail for Massachusetts Representative Edward Boland.
Women Staff in the 1970s
Linda Melconian explains the lack of opportunities and pay disparities facing women staff in the 1970s.
The Democratic Cloakroom
Linda Melconian describes the way then-Majority Whip Tip O'Neill introduced her to the Democratic Cloakroom.
"What Are You Girls Cooking Up?"
Linda Melconian recalls the way women working in politics in the 1970s were often viewed with suspicion by their male colleagues.
"Notice I Haven't Mentioned Any Women"
Linda Melconian remembers the small number of women Members of Congress in the 1970s.
The Workings of the Whip Organization
Linda Melconian provides a behind-the-scenes view of the Democratic Whip organization under then-Majority Whip Tip O'Neill.
The 18-Minute Gap
Linda Melconian recounts her experience on the House Floor during a pivotal moment in the Watergate investigation.
Learning from Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills of Arkansas
Linda Melconian recalls observing Chairman Wilbur Mills at work counting votes on the House Floor.
Interacting with Members on the Floor
Linda Melconian describes her role as Speaker Tip O'Neill's "eyes and ears" on the House Floor.
"Nobody was Better than the Speaker"
Linda Melconian explains Speaker Tip O'Neill's ability to connect with his colleagues.
The Most Popular Man in the House
Linda Melconian recalls the way Speaker Tip O'Neill methodically built a strong base of support in the Democratic Caucus.
Advice from Representative Ella T. Grasso of Connecticut
Linda Melconian remembers the sage professional advice she received from Representative Ella T. Grasso.
The Speaker and Ireland
Linda Melconian describes her experience on a congressional delegation to the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom in April 1979.
Tip O'Neill and Young People
Linda Melconian recalls Speaker Tip O'Neill's willingness to hire and encourage young people.