Margaret M. Heckler served eight restless terms in the House, as she was frequently mentioned for state office while moving through six standing committees. “Her seniority and bargaining ability were weakened by these frequent moves,” observed a colleague, “and she was forced most often to carry her agenda directly to the House Floor.”1 Such activity may have been due to the fact that Heckler was a moderate Republican from one of the nation’s most liberal and Democratic states.
Margaret Mary O’Shaughnessy was born on June 21, 1931, in Flushing, New York. She was the only child of John O’Shaughnessy, a hotel doorman, and Bridget McKeon O’Shaughnessy, Irish-Catholic immigrants. She graduated from Albertus Magnus College in 1953, marrying John Heckler, an investment banker, in 1954. Theirs would be a commuter marriage that eventually produced three children: Belinda, Alison, and John Jr. The marriage ended in 1985 after she left Congress. Heckler went on to Boston College School of Law, where she was the only woman in her class. She graduated in 1956, forming a law office with fellow law school graduates. Shortly afterward, she began volunteering in local Republican campaigns, and in 1958 she became a member of the Republican committee for Wellesley, Massachusetts, a position she held for eight years. Heckler’s first elected office was to the eight-person governor’s council (an advisory body mandated by the state constitution) in 1962, serving two terms. Thereafter, she was frequently mentioned as a possible candidate for statewide office.
In 1966 Heckler dismayed the Republican establishment when she announced her candidacy against Representative Joseph W. Martin Jr., the venerable 81-year-old House incumbent, whose seat encompassed southeastern Massachusetts. Martin had served in Congress since 1925 and was Speaker of the House twice. Heckler’s energetic campaign was a marked contrast to the performances of her elderly opponent, who had missed more than half of the votes in the previous Congress.2 She narrowly won the Republican primary by 3,200 votes.3 Heckler went on to win the general election against labor lawyer Patrick H. Harrington Jr., with 51 percent of the vote, to become the first woman from Massachusetts elected to Congress without succeeding her husband.4 “The men kept saying I couldn’t make it,” she later recalled, “but the women convinced them that a woman, even if she was the underdog, deserved their backing.”5
Early in her House career, Heckler quickly moved to build support. She concentrated on building a reputation as her district’s champion in the capital by setting up a toll-free hotline to facilitate communication between her constituents and her Washington office. She also scheduled weekly visits to her district. In addition, Heckler took care to be a policy advocate for her constituents: calling for an end to foreign oil import quotas to gain cheaper fuel oil, protecting the New England textile industry, demanding protection of U.S. fishermen from Soviet harassment on the seas, and calling for tax credits to help parochial schools. Four days into her first term, Heckler ignored the chamber’s tradition that freshman Members remain silent when she publicly demanded the release of a constituent, a naturalized citizen, who had been arrested for espionage in Czechoslovakia.6 Former staffer Jack Horner recalled, “She would never take no for an answer when it came to her constituents.”7
Heckler struggled to balance party loyalty with the prevailing viewpoints of her district. Moving beyond issues clearly tied to her constituents, she seemed uncertain to some observers, who believed she cast votes based on the lead of other Members rather than her own convictions.8 A former aide defended her, noting that she survived “in a district that rightfully should have had a Democrat [as] Representative. And she did it by very close calculations on how to vote. She’s an astute, careful politician.”9 The liberal Americans for Democratic Action’s roll call votes scorecard for Heckler ranged from 47 percent to 74 percent support of their favored issues. The conservative Americans for Constitutional Action issued scorecards for Heckler that ranged from 12 percent to 48 percent support for their issues. That Heckler had entered Congress by deposing a party favorite and had achieved a level of popularity that resulted in two races, 1972 and 1976, where she ran unopposed, writes Marcy Kaptur, suggested that “she felt no obligation to toe the party line.”10 One colleague in the Massachusetts delegation told the Washington Post, “People don’t give her credit for being a woman in a man’s world, a Republican in a Democratic state, a moderate in liberal country. She’s never been in the mainstream, always an outsider. … Yes, she’s shrill and she doesn’t work well with people. But she had to be all those things to get where she is.”11
Congresswoman Heckler demonstrated a sincere interest in increasing the number of women in politics. During her first term, she described why she had run for Congress. Besides contributing to making good policy, she added, “I also felt very strongly that there should be more women in Congress.”12 Heckler made a fervent and consistent commitment to women’s issues, ranging from combating rape, curbing domestic violence, protecting pension rights for women on maternity leave, and prohibiting discrimination based on gender or marital status in acquiring credit. In the mid-1970s, she began working to organize a caucus of all women House Members, efforts which were initially rebuffed. In April 1977, she and Representative Elizabeth Holtzman of New York became the first co-chairs of the bipartisan Congresswomen’s Caucus. The goal of the caucus was to promote legislation beneficial to women and to encourage women appointments. Fifteen of the 18 women in Congress joined. Heckler served as the Republican chair until 1982, the year the caucus changed its name to the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues. “The Women’s Caucus is making a difference and it’s very important to continue,” Heckler remarked on the caucus’s 25th anniversary. “The hard struggles have been won, but there will always be small struggles. I have to believe the Caucus was a part of that.”13
Heckler played a balancing role when it came to abortion. While opposing the use of federal funds for abortions, she also opposed a constitutional amendment banning abortions or any requirement for federally funded clinics to notify parents of teenagers receiving birth control prescriptions. The National Women’s Political Caucus endorsed Heckler’s opponents in 1980 and 1982 because of her stand on abortion.14 Two years later the National Organization for Women also refused to endorse her. “It was very hurtful to me psychologically,” Heckler recalled in 2002. “It was very important to have a Republican component in the advancement of women because these women knew without a Republican, these issues wouldn’t be taken seriously. Abortion is difficult, and it has divided women, but I don’t think women’s identity should focus on that one issue.”15
A level of restlessness existed during Heckler’s House career that is reflected in her committee history. She came to Congress seeking appointment to the Committee on the Judiciary; instead, she was put onto the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. She remained on Veterans’ Affairs during her entire House service, rising to Ranking Member in 1975. Her second committee assignment, though, was unusually variable. Originally, Heckler was on the Committee on Government Operations. In her second term, she moved to the Committee on Banking and Currency. After serving there for six years, Heckler took the opportunity to move to the Committee on Agriculture. Once again, her tenure lasted six years. During her final term, she transferred to the Committee on Science and Technology. Heckler also took a position in the 94th Congress (1975–1977) on the Joint Economic Committee. Her tenure there lasted eight years. She further served on the Ethics Committee for the 95th Congress (1977–1979), the Committee on Aging in the 97th Congress (1981–1983), and the largely ceremonial House Beauty Shop Committee in the 92nd and 93rd Congresses (1971–1975). In the early 1980s, the Washington Post characterized Heckler as impatient and uncomfortable with the more deliberative pace of the legislative process.16
Heckler’s congressional career ended unexpectedly in 1982 while she was the most senior Republican woman in the House. The Massachusetts legislature redrew its congressional districts after the 1980 Census, facing the task of losing one House seat. Heckler’s decision to forego challenging Senator Edward Moore (Ted) Kennedy for re-election pitted her against Representative Barney Frank, a Democratic freshman, in a new and economically diverse district encompassing wealthy Boston suburbs and working-class communities in southeastern Massachusetts. In the match-up, Heckler was so heavily favored that Frank considered retiring.17 Frank worked hard to make the race a referendum on President Ronald Reagan’s conservative policies. His campaign repeatedly concentrated on Heckler’s support of Reagan’s 1981 budget and economic plan, which combined spending and tax cuts. A sagging economy—district unemployment was more than 13 percent—made Heckler vulnerable to Frank’s charges, and in response she could only argue that she was not “a Reagan clone.” “I’ve served under five Presidents, unbossed and unbought,” she proclaimed.18 But observers found her campaign poorly organized. Negative TV ads by the Heckler campaign may have hurt her by creating a sympathy vote for Frank. The result was considered a surprise: Barney Frank won re-election with 59 percent of the vote to Heckler’s 40 percent.19
In the aftermath of Heckler’s defeat, President Ronald Reagan nominated her as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Nearly a week after the Senate confirmed her appointment, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor swore Heckler into the Cabinet on March 9, 1983. During her tenure, she oversaw the establishment of new disability guidelines for Social Security and increased federal funding for Alzheimer’s disease care. But her greatest challenge was dealing with the emerging HIV/AIDS crisis. Heckler came under attack from conservatives in late 1985 as an ineffective administrator and as weak in her support of the Reagan administration’s programs. She accepted President Reagan’s offer to be U.S. Ambassador to Ireland and served from December 1985 through August 1989, after which she returned to Wellesley, Massachusetts. Margaret Heckler died on August 6, 2018, in Arlington, Virginia.20
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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