Betsy Wright Hawkings
". . . [W]hen you become a chief of staff, you go from just having to worry about policy to having to worry about financial management and how we’re managing the schedule and the district office operation and in sort of a macro sense, the political stuff. So, it was just kind of more. And I think that’s part of the reason why I stayed, too, is that I was always learning. I had a job that I felt made a difference. I was being rewarded at a pretty rapid rate, and he was giving me the flexibility to try to be the mom that I wanted to be.”
— Besty Wright Hawkings, April 18, 2016
Betsy Wright Hawkings worked as a chief of staff for nearly 25 years on Capitol Hill. In this oral history, Hawkings describes her swift rise in the office of Republican Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut and the lessons she learned from a career focused on developing leadership strategies for congressional offices. Hawkings describes the way cooperation and compassion united the small number of women in office leadership positions in the early 1990s. She highlights the challenges facing working mothers and the proliferation of opportunities for women in congressional offices over the course of her career.
Hawkings’ first-hand account of the pivotal 1994 election and the “Contract with America” adds a unique perspective on the changes within the Republican Party during the 1990s. She developed a strong connection with Shays’ Connecticut district—which included her hometown—and was instrumental in mobilizing resources to assist residents affected by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Throughout this interview, Hawkings provides insight into the provision of constituent services, office management, congressional employment practices, and the challenges of implementing a bipartisan legislative agenda.
In 1988, Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut hired Betsy Wright Hawkings as a legislative assistant focusing on constituent services. One year later, she became legislative director and, in 1990, she was promoted to chief of staff. Her rapid rise was evidence of her leadership and organizational skills, which she applied over the course of nearly 25 years working on Capitol Hill.
Hawkings was born in 1963 and grew up in southwestern Connecticut, where her father was actively involved in local Republican politics. Her first political experience was as a high school volunteer for the George H.W. Bush campaign during the 1980 Republican presidential primaries. Encouraged by her mother to attend college, she financed her degree from Williams College in Massachusetts by working in the banking industry in Manhattan between semesters.
As chief of staff for Congressman Shays, Hawkings was one of a small number of women who held office management positions in the early 1990s. She developed and applied her leadership abilities, organizational acumen, and strategic political skills. She also worked to address some of the issues facing working mothers trying to balance work and family life.
Hawkings experienced the Republican transition to the majority after the 1994 election and the implementation of the “Contract with America.” After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center—which resulted in the death of more than 80 constituents from Shays’ district—she spearheaded the effort to connect the families of victims with resources and supported the congressional investigation of the attacks.
Hawkings’ management skills were influential beyond her office. In 1996, she started working part-time for Congressman Shays so that she could care for her children. From 1996 to 1998, she was also deputy director of the Congressional Management Foundation, producing manuals on effective procedures for new Members organizing their congressional offices. The policy manual she created for Shays’ congressional office also served as a model for her colleagues in other Member offices. After Shays’ unsuccessful reelection bid in 2008, Hawkings brought her leadership skills to three other congressional offices as chief of staff until she left Capitol Hill in 2015.
Family and Politics
Betsy Wright Hawkings recalls the political allegiances in her family and how her mother gave her the confidence to be ambitious.
Campaigning as a Student
Betsy Wright Hawkings recalls how she was drawn to politics by her experience in the 1980 presidential election campaign.
Women Need to Be Prepared
Betsy Wright Hawkings recalls the sage advice she received from former Representative Nancy Johnson of Connecticut.
Being a Working Mother
Betsy Wright Hawkings describes the difficulties of building a career as a working mother.
Working as Legislative Director
Betsy Wright Hawkings describes responding to letters from constituents when she first arrived in the office of Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut.
Condescension from Constituents
Betsy Wright Hawkings describes the demeaning way she was treated by a constituent while working as chief of staff.
Congressional Accountability Act
Betsy Wright Hawkings remembers the origins of the Congressional Accountability Act, which extended most federal labor protections to congressional employees.
Bipartisanship in Practice
Betsy Wright Hawkings describes the importance of a strategic approach to bipartisanship.
Women and Positions of Influence in the House
Betsy Wright Hawkings reflects on how many women—Members and staff—have gained positions of power in Congress since the beginning of her career.
Meeting with Women Senior Staff
Betsy Wright Hawkings compares the size and significance of two meetings of women in senior staff positions—one in the early 1990s, the other 20 years later.