“. . . I was in the Chief Deputy Whip Office at a time when there were not very many women around and not other women who were floor assistants. They had something called the ‘floor boys,’ which was a night out—it seems like every week they went out and had drinks and steaks, and lobbyists paid for it. I knew it existed, and I knew I wasn’t invited to it. And I thought a lot about whether I want[ed] to bang the door down. And I thought, ‘Did I really even want to go into that room? Did I want to be there? Did I want to be doing that?’ And I had to step back and think, ‘What’s my goal? Why am I here?’ By then I was very deeply involved in the efforts to stop the wars in Central America, and that was an all-consuming job. I did not actually need to be going out late at night for drinks and steaks; I needed to get up early in the morning and do my job.”
—Kathy Gille, February 25, 2016
In 1981, Kathy Gille arrived in Washington, D.C., as a legislative aide in the office of Congressman David Bonior of Michigan. As a speechwriter, researcher and policy and communications advisor, she rapidly became an integral part of his congressional staff. In this interview, she recalls her political awakening in the Detroit student movement of the late 1960s and her wide-ranging work in Congress as one of the first women to supervise a Whip operation in the House.
Drawing from more than two decades of experience, Gille describes the working life of women staff in Congress. She discusses her foreign policy work for Congressman Bonior on the House Democratic Task Force on Central America, which worked to end the wars in Central America during the 1980s. Gille also reflects on the pivotal victory of the House Republicans in the 1994 election, as well as the Democratic transition to the minority in the House. She explains the workings of the Democratic Whip’s office under Congressman Bonior from 1991 to 2002, including her day-to-day activities on the House Floor, the mechanics of “whipping a bill,” and the role of the Whip in key votes, such as the 1993 vote to implement the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Kathy Gille worked in the office of Congressman David Bonior of Michigan for more than 20 years. Hired as a legislative aide, she initially handled constituent services and conducted foreign policy research. Her responsibilities quickly grew to include human rights work, committee work, and speechwriting. She was later named executive floor assistant, becoming one of the first women to supervise a Whip operation in the House.
Kathy Gille was born in 1951, and raised in suburban Detroit. She attended an all-girls’ high school, where she was part of the Detroit student movement. She participated in Detroit city politics and organized local talks about issues from civil rights to the war in Vietnam. Her Catholic faith provided another inspiration for her activism, and she was drawn to the Catholic Worker Movement because of its emphasis on social and economic reform to combat poverty.
Gille’s interest in politics led her to study political science at the University of Chicago, where she also attended graduate school. In 1981, she began working for Congressman Bonior, conducting research on foreign and domestic policy issues, working on the House Rules Committee, and writing speeches. She also played an important role as a staff member on the House Democratic Task Force on Central America, which focused on exposing human rights abuses in the region and called for the U.S. government to cut off military aid to the Contras in Nicaragua.
Gille became executive floor assistant in 1987, when Congressman Bonior was elected Deputy Whip. She developed a skillful approach to tallying votes, and her role increased in significance when Bonior became Majority Whip in 1991. From her office in the Capitol, she often passed the statue of Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin on her way to the House Chamber. Gille was on the front lines organizing the Democratic Whip operation for significant votes in 1993 such as the budget bill and the vote to implement the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). She continued to work on the House Floor after Bonior transitioned to Minority Whip in 1995. In addition to her floor duties, she served as a senior advisor for policy and communications until she left Capitol Hill in 2002.
Accessing the Boys' Club
Kathy Gille reflects on what she learned as the lone woman among floor assistants.
Putting Ideals into Practice
Kathy Gille reflects on her quest to make her political ideals a reality during her time in Congress.
Obstacles Facing Women
Kathy Gille remembers the difficulties women encountered in pursuit of professional advancement.
Kathy Gille reflects on the added pressure on women in the workplace and the way this environment forced her to develop important observational skills.
Kathy Gille describes how the questions related to workplace attire posed new challenges for women during her career.
Balancing Family Life
Kathy Gille emphasizes the way women working in Congress balanced their career and family life.
How to Whip a Bill
Kathy Gille outlines the process of whipping a bill.