LINCOLN, Blanche Lambert

1960–

Biography

Inspired by compelling women role models, who “believed very strongly in giving back, whether it was to their community or to their church, and particularly to their family,” Blanche Lambert Lincoln pursued a life in public service. With the support of her parents, she achieved success in public life that many did not predict. “When I came home and decided to run for Congress,” Lincoln recalled later, “[my father] said, ‘Well, we’ve tried to teach you all to reach for the stars and believe in yourself and go for it.’ He said, ‘We might have done too good a job on you.’”1 At age 38, having served two terms in the U.S. House, she became the youngest woman ever elected to serve in the U.S. Senate, working to balance her professional and personal responsibilities and always stressing the importance of her role as mother to two small children. During her tenure in Congress, Lincoln was a proponent for farmers and working and rural families, and in 2009, she became the first woman to chair the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.2

The youngest of four children, Blanche M. Lambert was born in Helena, Arkansas, on September 30, 1960, to Jordan Jr. and Martha Kelly Lambert. The Lamberts were sixth-generation farmers of cotton, rice, wheat, and soybeans. After attending public school, Lambert graduated with a BS in biology from Randolph-Macon Women’s College, in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1982. In 1983 Lambert went to Washington, DC, where she worked as a staff assistant for Arkansas Democratic Congressman William Vollie (Bill) Alexander Jr. That experience cemented her lifelong appreciation for the responsibilities and challenges of governing.3 From 1985 until 1991, she worked for lobbying firms as a researcher.

In 1992 Lambert decided to challenge her old boss, Representative Alexander, for the Democratic nomination in his rural northeast Arkansas district, which included farmland along the Mississippi River as well as the city of Jonesboro.4 To prepare for the campaign, Lincoln attended a seminar organized by the National Women’s Political Caucus. She called it a “truth-telling” experience, where the challenges for women running for public office were bluntly stated. I was advised, “Remember, always, always, have a stick of lipstick in your pocket. Always carry an extra pair of panty hose. Always carry a fresh shirt. Because the standard is higher for you.”5 She ran on a lean budget, traveling the sprawling district in a pick-up truck and using connections to local chapters of Business and Professional Women as a campaign base.6 Lambert prevailed in the primary with 61 percent of the vote, carrying all but two of the district’s 25 counties. In the general election, she defeated a Republican real estate developer with 70 percent of the vote.7 In 1993 Blanche Lambert married Steve Lincoln, a pediatrician. In 1994 she was re-elected to a second term.

When Lincoln joined the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), she secured a seat on the influential Energy and Commerce Committee over the preference of the committee chairman, whom she soon impressed.8 She also was assigned to the Agriculture Committee and was appointed to the coveted Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, the party leadership organization that makes committee assignments. She advocated for affordable health care coverage for farmers and the self-employed. On fiscal matters she was more conservative, voting for the Penny–Kasich plan to cut federal spending and, in her second term, approving a balanced budget constitutional amendment. Lincoln also voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs in 1994. In January 1996, she announced her decision not to seek re-election in the House after learning she was pregnant with twins.9 After twin boys Reece and Bennett were born that summer, Lincoln served out the remainder of her term and returned to Arkansas.

When incumbent Senator Dale Bumpers announced his retirement in 1998, Lincoln jumped into the race, winning the Democratic nomination in a four-way primary to succeed him.10 Her general election opponent was a conservative from the Arkansas state senate who supported tax reform and opposed abortion rights. Reflecting on her races for the House and later for the Senate, Lincoln recalled, “my age was a bigger issue than my gender.” Lincoln, who supported women’s reproductive choice, ran on her credentials as a mother and pledged to support women’s and children’s health issues in the Senate.11 She prevailed with 55 percent of the vote. In 2004 Lincoln was re-elected with 56 percent of the vote over a Republican state senator.12 Her three committee assignments in the 106th Congress (1999–2001) included Energy and Natural Resources; Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; and the Special Committee on Aging. In 2000 she co-authored Nine and Counting, a book by and about the women of the Senate. In the 107th Congress (2001–2003), she left Energy and Natural Resources to join the Finance Committee (she was only the third woman to serve in that panel’s history) and the Select Committee on Ethics. Her committee work helped Lincoln to overcome earlier concerns about her inexperience. “I think I felt like I had at least proved some things . . . I worked hard on things that were important to Arkansas.”13

As a cofounder of the Senate New Democrat Coalition, Lincoln maintained her profile as a moderate willing to work with Republicans, voting for the 2001 tax cut but against other policy proposals put forward by the George W. Bush administration, such as drilling for oil on Alaska’s North Slope.14 Lincoln worked closely with other senators, including Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, to represent the interests and needs of rural Americans. She focused on agricultural issues affecting Arkansas farmers, sponsoring legislation related to flooding and crop insurance. In the 106th Congress, she joined the World Trade Organization Caucus and tried to open Cuban markets to Arkansas rice farmers. In the 107th Congress, she wrote a bill providing for tax credits to spur the development of biodiesel fuel made from soybeans. In December 2000, Lincoln successfully shepherded through the Senate a bill to establish the Delta Regional Authority, a centralized agency to foster economic development in the lower Mississippi Delta region.15 During the 109th Congress (2005–2007), Lincoln continued to advocate for the development of alternative energy sources. Consistently, throughout her two terms in the U.S. Senate, Lincoln served as a voice for working parents, and especially women. When debating issues such as welfare reform, child tax credits, child care availability, or other proposals that would directly impact working parents, Lincoln served as their advocate. “There are very few people in the United States Senate who know and understand what working moms are going through,” she recalled in a 2017 interview. “I think working moms need to be heard.”16 And during the 110th Congress (2007–2009), Lincoln introduced legislation investing in after-school programs and childcare.

At the start of the 111th Congress (2009–2011), with unified Democratic government for the first time since her freshman term in the House, Lincoln became a pivotal figure in the passage of President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda. She supported health care reform and a major overhaul of financial regulations.17 When committee assignments changed in the wake of the death of Massachusetts Senator Edward Moore (Ted) Kennedy in 2009, Lincoln became the first woman to chair the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. “As a seventh-generation Arkansan and farmer’s daughter, I know my father is smiling down on me today,” Lincoln said.18 Lincoln’s signature accomplishment as chair was the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which reformed public school lunch programs to combat childhood obesity.19

Lincoln faced a primary challenger during the 2010 election cycle, Arkansas lieutenant governor Bill Halter, who argued that Lincoln supported corporate interests over those of working families.20 Halter forced a runoff primary by coming within two percentage points of Lincoln during the May 2010 primary.21 While Lincoln managed to defeat Halter in the June 2010 runoff by four percentage points, she faced further challenges during the general election.22 U.S. Representative John Boozman, whose brother Fay was Lincoln’s first Republican senatorial challenger in 1998, ran against Lincoln in the fall campaign and argued that she was too supportive of President Obama’s policies, which were largely unpopular in the state.23 Boozman defeated Lincoln in the general election with nearly 58 percent of the vote.24

When she bid farewell to the Senate during a floor speech on December 15, 2010, Lincoln said: “I came to Congress to fight on behalf of our Nation’s children, families, veterans, small businesses, and farmers, and I am honored and humbled that in each of these areas, I was able to achieve legislative success on their behalf.”25 After leaving the Senate, Lincoln took a position as a policy adviser in a Washington, DC, law firm.26


Footnotes

1“Blanche Lambert Lincoln: U.S. Senator, 1999–2011,” Oral History Interview, Senate Historical Office, Washington, DC.

2Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (9 September 2009): S9189; S. Res. 257 (9 September 2009); Almanac of American Politics, 2002 (Washington, DC: National Journal Group, 2001): 127–129; Bill Hewitt, Robin Reid, and Gabrielle Cosgriff, “The Long Shot: Freshman Sen. Blanche Lincoln, 41, of Arkansas Excels at the Nitty-Gritty of Politics—and Motherhood,” 11 March 2002, People: 129.

3“Blanche Lambert Lincoln: U.S. Senator, 1999–2011,” Oral History Interview.

4Melinda Henneberger, “No Escaping Motherhood on the Campaign Trail,” 13 June 1998, New York Times: A1; “Blanche Lambert Lincoln,” Associated Press Candidate Biographies, 1996.

5“Blanche Lambert Lincoln: U.S. Senator, 1999–2011,” Oral History Interview

6Joan I. Duffy, “Pressure Would Follow Lambert to Congress,” 10 October 1992, Memphis Commercial Appeal: A1.

7Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

8Politics in America, 1996 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1995): 67.

9Barbara Mikulski et al., Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate (New York: Morrow, 2000): 92.

10Hewitt, Reid, and Cosgriff, “The Long Shot.”

11“Blanche Lincoln,” Associated Press Candidate Biographies, 2000; "Lincoln, Blanche Lambert," Current Biography, 2002 (New York: H.W. Wilson and Company, 2002): 332–334.

12“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

13“Blanche Lambert Lincoln: U.S. Senator, 1999–2011,” Oral History Interview.

14Almanac of American Politics, 2004 (Washington, DC: National Journal Inc., 2003): 132–134.

15“Official Biography of Blanche Lincoln,” https://web.archive.org/web/20041211165555/http://lincoln.senate.gov/biography.htm; Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong., 2nd sess. (15 April 1994): 686.

16“Blanche Lambert Lincoln: U.S. Senator, 1999–2011,” Oral History Interview.

17Carl Hulse, “Senator Cements Role at Heart of Debate,” 22 November 2009, New York Times: A28; David M. Herszenhorn, “Bill Passed in Senate Broadly Expands Oversight of Wall St.,” 21 May 2010, New York Times: A1.

18Jill Zeman Bleed, “Ark. Sen. Lincoln New Head of Senate Ag Committee,” 10 September 2009, Associated Press.

19Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, PL 111-296, 124 Stat. 3183 (2010); Mary Bruce, “Coming Soon? Healthier School Lunches,” 9 August 2010, ABC News.

20Shaila Dewan, “Arkansas’s Senator in Middle, Hit on All Sides,” 8 March 2010, New York Times: A1.

21Arkansas Secretary of State, “Statewide Results by Contest–2010 Preferential Primary Election & Non Partisan Judicial General Election,” accessed 29 March 2012, https://www.sos.arkansas.gov/electionresults/index.php?ac:show:contest_statewide=1&elecid=211&contestid=3.

22Arkansas Secretary of State, “Statewide Results by Contest–2010 General Primary (Runoff) Election,” accessed 29 March 2012, https://www.sos.arkansas.gov/electionresults/index.php?ac:show:contest_statewide=1&elecid=221&contestid=4; Shaila Dewan, “In Arkansas, Battle Over, It Is Time for Another,” 10 June 2010, New York Times: A24.

23Dewan, “In Arkansas, Battle Over, It Is Time for Another.”

24“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

25Congressional Record, Senate, 111th Cong., 2nd sess. (15 December 2010): S10263.

26Kris Kitto, “Life after Congress,” 23 June 2011, Roll Call: 22.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Arkansas State University
Dean B. Ellis Library Archives and Special Collections

State University, AR
Papers: 1993-1997. 33 feet Congressional papers and correspondence, including photographs, video tape, and sound recordings.

Central Arkansas Library
Butler Center for Arkansas Studies

Little Rock, AR
Papers: ca. 1998-2011. ca 400 linear feet. Senatorial papers, memorabilia, and electronic records.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Blanche Lambert Lincoln," in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2006.

U.S. Congress. Tributes Delivered in Congress: Blanche L. Lincoln, United States Congressman, 1993-1997, United States Senator, 1999-2011. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2012.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Agriculture
  • House Committee - Commerce
  • House Committee - Energy and Commerce
  • House Committee - Merchant Marine and Fisheries
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