During her 16–year tenure, Congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar was dedicated to improving the economic welfare of women. She led the charge in Congress for women’s rights, though she often came into conflict with national women’s groups for her staunch pro–life position. Representative Oakar became an influential figure in the Democratic Party, climbing the leadership ladder by mastering House internal procedures and administration.
Mary Rose Oakar, the youngest of five children, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 5, 1940, to parents of Lebanese and Syrian ancestry. Her father was a laborer and her mother a homemaker. Working her way through school as a telephone operator, Oakar graduated from Ursuline College in 1962 with a B.A. degree, and earned an M.A. four years later from John Carroll University, both in Ohio. She also studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, Westham Adult College in England, and Columbia University in New York City. From 1963 to 1975, Oakar taught at a Cleveland high school and at Cuyahoga Community College. She served on Cleveland’s city council from 1973 to 1976. As a member of the city council, Oakar became a popular local leader who earned the reputation of being an aggressive advocate for women, children, and the elderly. She won support for her personalized campaign strategy which included distributing pens decorated with roses–a tactic to remind voters of her name.1
Hoping to capitalize on her strong local ties and political experience, Oakar entered the 1976 Democratic primary for the heavily Democratic congressional district encompassing much of Cleveland west of the Cuyahoga River, vacated by James Stanton, who made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate. During the campaign she emphasized her status as the only woman in the race, declaring the need for more women in Congress to offset what she perceived as the arrogance exuded by many Congressmen. She also highlighted her Cleveland roots when making campaign stops—via her convertible adorned with roses—in the community. “The overriding issue is that people want to feel the person who represents you at the federal level is close to you,” she remarked.2 She defeated 11 other candidates with 24 percent of the vote. Oakar then dominated the general election, capturing 81 percent of the vote against two Independent candidates. In her seven successful re–election bids through 1990 in the heavily Democratic district, she never faced a serious challenge, often receiving no opposition from Republican candidates.3
In the 95th Congress (1977–1979), Oakar served on the Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee, and she introduced successful legislation to commemorate the work of suffragist Susan B. Anthony by creating a $1 coin featuring her likeness.4 She eventually chaired the Banking Subcommittee on Economic Stabilization. Oakar subsequently was appointed to several more committees, including the House Select Committee on Aging in the 96th Congress (1979–1981), the Post Office and Civil Service Committee in the 97th Congress (1981–1983), and the House Administration Committee in the 98th Congress (1983–1985). She served on these committees through the 102nd Congress (1991–1993).
Oakar developed a reputation as a liberal who worked on behalf of women’s rights issues, especially economic parity. “Economic security is the truly liberating issue for women,” she said. “If you’re economically liberated, you’re free to pursue other avenues in your life.”5 As chair of the Post Office and Civil Service Subcommittee on Compensation and Employee Benefits, she sponsored two bills during the mid–1980s: the Pay Equity Act and the Federal Pay Equity Act. Both revived a longtime effort among women in Congress to achieve salary equity with men for employment of comparable worth. Charging that “employers have used gender as a determining factor when setting pay rates,” Oakar stressed the need for a comprehensive study investigating pay discrepancies between men and women both in the private sector and in the federal government.
The congressional debates about equal pay received national attention. Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly labeled Oakar’s efforts of advocating pay raises for professions typically occupied by women, such as teaching and nursing, as an attack against blue–collar men. Oakar countered Schlafly by claiming salary increases for women would help men because it would lead to stronger families.6 In a 1985 House hearing on economic parity, Oakar received additional criticism, this time from Clarence M. Pendleton, Jr., chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who branded Oakar’s proposed legislation as “Looney Tunes” and “socialism without a plan.” She insisted that Congress needed to intervene to correct gender pay inequity and dismissed Pendleton’s commission, arguing that “it has ceased to be a champion of civil rights.”7
Oakar dissented from the Democratic majority on two high–profile issues. As one of the few Arab Americans serving in Congress during the 1980s, she suggested that the Ronald W. Reagan administration’s foreign policy tilted too much toward the interests of Israel. On another front, her pro–life stance caused friction with powerful women’s groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW), undermining her potential to emerge as a leading public figure in feminist circles. Although frustrated with her inability to connect with leading women’s organizations, Oakar encouraged all women, including her colleagues on Capitol Hill, to work for equality with men. “There are only 24 women in Congress,” she declared. “It seems to me, beyond all other issues, we’re obligated to correct inequities toward our own gender. No one else is going to do it.”8
Oakar built a reputation as an expert on House rules and procedures, and it was in this capacity that she worked her way into the Democratic leadership. On the House Administration Committee, which she joined in 1984, Oakar eventually rose to chair its Subcommittee on Police and Personnel. She worked in the Democratic Whip organization and traveled around the country on behalf of fellow Democratic candidates. Oakar was elected Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus in the 99th Congress (1985–1987), one of a handful of women in either party to hold a leadership position. The previous secretary of the Caucus and the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1984, Geraldine Ferraro of New York, contacted Oakar shortly after the Ohio Representative assumed her new position. According to Oakar, Ferraro coupled congratulations with a warning that the male–dominated Democratic leadership would exclude her from significant meetings. Oakar informed Speaker of the House Thomas (Tip) O’Neill, Jr., of Massachusetts that she expected to be treated as an equal. Despite her pre–emptive strategy, she was not invited to the first White House meeting of the new Congress. Oakar objected with such intensity that the Speaker made certain she always had the opportunity to attend leadership meetings. Quite often the only woman in attendance, she compared herself to Ferraro, commenting, “Each of us had to break down a barrier.”9 After the position was renamed “Vice Chair” during the 100th Congress (1987–1989), Oakar made a spirited attempt to gain the fourth most powerful seat in the House–Chair of the Democratic Caucus. Though her campaign employed such innovative tactics as buttons, posters, and even a full–page advertisement in the congressional newspaper Roll Call entitled, “Mary Rose: She Earned It,” Oakar failed to achieve her goal, losing to then–Budget Chairman William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania.10
In the spring of 1992, Congresswoman Oakar received her first significant primary challenge in her newly re–apportioned district in western Cleveland. Oakar had been linked to a scandal that revolved around dozens of Representatives (focusing on about 20) who had written more than 11,000 overdrafts in a three–year period from the House “bank”—an informal money service provided by the House Sergeant at Arms. Oakar wrote 213 overdrafts during that period for an undisclosed amount of money, and she resigned from her prominent position as co–chairwoman of the Democratic Platform Committee for that summer’s Democratic National Convention.11 After this embarrassing incident, Oakar burnished her credentials as a caretaker for the district and an advocate for health care and the elderly. Oakar defeated Tim Hagan in the June 2 primary with 30 to 39 percent of the vote (five other contenders split the remainder). Oakar described the result as “a tribute to the people I represent” and as “an outpouring of affection” from voters on her behalf.12 In the general election, however, she faced a difficult task making inroads with voters in the two–fifths of the district that had been incorporated after apportionment. In addition, the fall 1992 elections were difficult for many congressional incumbents because of redistricting and the down–turning economy. In November, Republican challenger Martin R. Hoke defeated Oakar by a plurality of 30,000 votes, 57 to 43 percent.13
After Congress, Oakar was indicted on charges of receiving illegal campaign contributions. She pled guilty in March 1995 and received two years’ probation, community service, and fines.14 Oakar’s work on behalf of the elderly continued, however, as President William J. Clinton appointed her in 1995 to the 25–member advisory board for the White House Conference on Aging. She went on to work as a business executive and consultant. Oakar was elected to the Ohio state house of representatives, where she served from 2001 to 2003. In June 2003, Oakar was named President of the American Arab Anti–Discrimination Committee.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
[ Top ]