Image courtesy of the Honorable Lynn C. Woolsey
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


As a working single mother, Lynn Woolsey spent several years receiving public assistance to help make ends meet while she raised three small children.  “I know what it means to have a safety net when you need help getting back on your feet,” Woolsey recalled. “I can go to Washington and say, ‘I've been there.’”1 Describing herself as the “first former welfare mom to serve in Congress,” Representative Woolsey focused on issues facing children and families during her 20-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Lynn Carol Robinson was born in Seattle, Washington, on November 3, 1937, to John Linn and Virginia Elizabeth Robinson. Lynn and her older sister Joan spent their adolescence in Seattle. A graduate of Seattle's Lincoln High School, Robinson attended the University of Washington from 1955 to 1957. She left school to marry Terry J. Critchett in 1958. Critchett’s success as a stockbroker enabled the couple to settle in northern California’s Marin County. They had three children—Joseph, Ed, and Amy—before they divorced in 1967. Following her divorce, Robinson found a secretarial job at a local high tech company, but was forced to accept welfare assistance to make ends meet. She eventually became a human resources manager at her company and, in 1980, opened a personnel services firm. She married David C. Woolsey in 1971 and raised another child, Michael, but that marriage also ended in divorce. Woolsey also returned to college and earned a bachelor of science degree from the University of San Francisco in 1980. Woolsey first entered elective politics in 1984, when she won a seat on the city council of Petaluma, in Sonoma County. She served on the city council until 1992, holding the post of vice mayor for the last year of her tenure.2  

In 1992, when five-term incumbent Representative Barbara Boxer decided to run for the U.S. Senate, Woolsey entered the race to succeed her. The district encompassed the two counties just north of the Golden Gate Bridge—Marin and most of Sonoma—one of the nation's most affluent areas. She finished ahead of eight opponents in the Democratic primary with 26 percent of the vote (to her nearest competitor’s 19 percent). In the general election against Republican Bill Filante, a California assemblyman, Woolsey ran on a platform that emphasized her experiences as a former welfare mother, businesswoman, and local council member. Woolsey held a sizeable lead throughout the race, and Filante suspended his campaign in September 1992 due to complications from a surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his brain. Woolsey won the election with 65 percent of the vote.  Re-elected in 1994 with 58 percent of the vote, Woolsey was returned to office in the next seven elections by comfortable margins. In 2010, she was elected to the 112th Congress with 66 percent of the vote.3 

When Woolsey claimed her seat in the House at the start of the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), she received assignments on three committees: Budget; Government Operations; and Education and Labor (later renamed Education and the Workforce). In the 104th Congress (1995–1997), she left Government Operations and, in the 106th Congress (1999–2001), was reassigned from the Budget Committee to the Science Committee. By the 108th Congress (2003–2005), she was the Ranking Member on the Education and Workforce Subcommittee on Education Reform. Woolsey served as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee when the Democrats took control of the House in the 110th and 111th Congresses, (2007–2011), and served as ranking Member of the subcommittee in the 112th Congress (2011–2013).4 As subcommittee chair, Woolsey’s measure to provide job-protected leave for family members of injured soldiers was incorporated into the FY 2008 defense authorization bill (P.L. 110-181). Upon its inclusion, Woolsey commented, “Military families shouldn't have to risk losing their jobs in order to meet the needs of their loved ones, and with this bill, we are one step closer to fulfilling our promise to them.”5  

From her seat on the Education and Workforce Committee, Woolsey positioned herself as one of Congress’s foremost advocates of education issues. Based on her personal experience, she was a Democratic spokesperson during the mid-1990s welfare reform debates and was sharply critical of legislation that reduced the scope of many programs and placed lifetime limits on benefits. Representative Woolsey also was a proponent of expanding childcare programs and supporting paid parental-leave programs. In the 105th Congress (1997–1999), during renewal of child-nutrition legislation, Woolsey inserted an amendment to expand school breakfast programs to all children and to make teenagers eligible for after-school snack programs. In the 106th Congress, she sponsored a measure that required the IRS to help enforce child support payments. In the 106th and 107th Congresses (1999–2003), she introduced her “Go, Girl” measure to encourage young girls to study science and math.6 In the 111th Congress, Woolsey submitted an amendment to H. R. 2020, a bill designed to increase the involvement of women and minorities in the sectors of network and information technology through the promotion of computer science programs for K-12 students. Woolsey argued that such an initiative would make “more students exposed to innovative, engaging, and rigorous computer science curriculum and the K-12 level.” Also, such an initiative would enable more students to enter these fields of employment.7

A prominent member of the Out of Iraq Caucus, Woolsey publicly criticized the George W. Bush administration’s prosecution of the war, voted consistently to suspend funding for the wars, and introduced a bill to redirect $60 billion of Pentagon funds toward domestic civilian programs. Woolsey sponsored the Iraq War Powers Repeal Act of 2006 (H.R. 5875), a bill designed to repeal Congress’s authorization of military force in Iraq (P.L. 107-243), but the bill died in committee.8 Throughout her congressional career, Woolsey petitioned the Bush and Barack H. Obama administrations to adopt a Sensible, Multilateral American Response to Terrorism (“SMART”) security strategy. Woolsey called for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan while the United States addresses “the root causes of terrorism by engaging our international partners and humanitarian community” to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan while containing terrorist threats to these countries and the United States. Woolsey proposed this approach in H. Con. Res. 392 in the 108th Congress (2003–2005) and reintroduced it during the 110th Congress (H. Res. 227), but both bills died in committee.9 At the start of the Obama administration, Woolsey supported the President's efforts to draw down troops and finish the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  However, she objected to President Obama's increase of troops to Afghanistan.10

Although Woolsey opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, she sponsored legislation that helped military families with injuries sustained during these conflicts and their readjustment to civilian life. During the 110th Congress, she sponsored the Support for Injured Servicemembers Act (H.R. 3481) which provided six months of unpaid, job-protected leave to the relatives of service members who were injured in the line of duty. For Woolsey, the bill “sends a message to our wounded men and women that we will stand beside them as they deal with the physical and mental wounds of war, an obligation that we must honor for as long as they live.”11

Woolsey also brought public attention to her causes as a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus during the 111th Congress. One of the caucus's initiatives was the submission of the “People's Budget,” an alternative budget that outlined the caucus's economic priorities.  Woolsey argued that such a budget “shows that you can tame the deficit without shredding the safety net, without destroying Medicare, without giving the back of the hand treatment to the middle class.”12 

Throughout her congressional career, Woolsey attended to her northern California constituents’ range of needs.  She delivered hundreds of millions of dollars to her district for a variety of capital intensive projects, including $9 million for a Petaluma River flood control project and $52 million for a seismic retrofit of the Golden Gate Bridge.13

After 20 years of service, Woolsey announced her retirement from the House at the end of the 112th Congress.14 In her farewell speech, Woolsey answered critics who accused her of “wanting a ‘perfect world.’ But I consider that a compliment . . . I’m absolutely certain that if we don't work toward a perfect world, we won't ever come close to providing a safe, healthy, and secure world for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.”15


1Jane Gross, “Running on Experience: On Welfare, Then Off It,” 16 June 1992, New York Times: A16.  See also Carolyn Lochhead, “Ex-Welfare Mom Takes Congress to Task; Lawmaker Draws on Experience,” 10 March 1994, San Francisco Chronicle: A4.

2Lynn Robinson birth register, Washington State Birth Index, 1930–1939, Washington State Library, Olympia, WA: http://www.vitalsearch-ca.com (accessed 15 April 2013); Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940: Seattle, King County, Washington, Roll T627_4375, page 6B, Washington State Library, Olympia, WA http://search.ancestrylibrary.com (accessed 17 April 2013);Washington, Marriage Records, 1865–2004, Washington State Library, Olympia, WA http://search.ancestrylibrary.com; California Divorce Index, 1966–1984, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.: http://search.ancestrylibrary.com (accessed 14 August 2012); California Marriage Index, 1960–1985, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.: http://search.ancestrylibrary.com (accessed 14 August 2012); Politics in America, 2000. (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1999): 99; Congressional Directory, 112th Congress (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2012): 22.

3“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/; California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, “Statement of Vote: Primary Election June 2, 1992”;  “Politics Aside, California GOP Candidate Battles for His Life,” 13 October 1992, the Associated Press.

4Congressional Directory, various editions (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993–2013).

5Politics in America, 2010 (Washington: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2009): 81; Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, “House Includes Woolsey Proposal to Help Military Families in Bi-Partisan SCHIP Bill,” Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, http://web.archive.org/web/20071101061915/http://woolsey.house.gov/latestnews.asp?ARTICLE5110=2151542&PG5110=1 (accessed 21 February 2013).

6Almanac of American Politics, 2002 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal, Inc., 2001):175; Politics in America, 2004 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2003):79.

7Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, “House Passes Woolsey Initiative to Encourage Women and Minorities to Study Computer Science,” Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, http://web.archive.org/web/20090528022038/http://woolsey.house.gov/latestnews.asp?ARTICLE5110=2845148&PG5110=1 (accessed 21 February 2013).

8The bill status of H.R. 5875 is listed here: http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:h.r.05875; Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2007) 83; Politics in America, 2010: 81. Woolsey supported a revocation of the Patriot Act on the grounds of the abuse of civil liberties.

9Congressional Record, House, 109th Cong., 2nd sess. (25 January 2005): H172; Lynn C. Woolsey, “It's Time for Smart Security,” 1 December 2009, Politico: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1109/30008.html (accessed 25 February 2013); Woolsey introduced H. Res. 227 during the 110th Congress. See http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/thomas for more information.

10For two examples of Woolsey’s opposition to the Obama administration’s approach to the war effort, see Congressional Record, House, 112th Cong., 1st sess. (6 January 2011): H74; and Congressional Record, House, 112th Cong., 1st sess. (26 January 2011): H501.

11Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey,“Woolsey’s Military Family Bill Signed Into Law,” Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, http://web.archive.org/web/20080227221957/http://woolsey.house.gov/latestnews.asp?ARTICLE5110=2154177&PG5110=1 (accessed 21 February 2013).

12Almanac of American Politics, 2008 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal, Inc., 2007): 179; Almanac of American Politics, 2012 (Washington, D.C.,: National Journal, Inc., 2011): 147; Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, D.C.,: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2007): 83; Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, “Woolsey Touts ‘People’s Budget,” Says Bringing Home Troops is ‘Moral Imperative’ and ’Fiscal Common Sense,” 4/13/2011 press release.

13Pamela J. Podger, “Woolsey Smokes Challenger in Primary,” 6 March 2002, San Francisco Chronicle: A24.

14Melanie Starkey, “Woolsey to Retire After Two Decades in House,” 27 June 2011, Roll Call.

15Congressional Record, House, 112th Cong., 2nd sess. (12 December 2012): H6709.

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

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External Research Collections

Sonoma State University Library
Special Collection & University Archives

Rohnert Park, CA
Papers: 1993-2013, 170 linear feet. The papers of Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey include legislative research, introduced and passed bills, speeches, manuscripts, awards, and visual media documenting the years of service to Sonoma and Marin counties.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Lynn C. Woolsey" 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: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Budget
  • House Committee - Economic and Educational Opportunities
  • House Committee - Education and Labor
    • Workforce Protections - Chair
  • House Committee - Education and the Workforce
  • House Committee - Foreign Affairs
  • House Committee - Government Operations
  • House Committee - Science
  • House Committee - Science and Technology
  • House Committee - Science, Space, and Technology
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Related Media

Committee Assignments

The Honorable Lynn C. Woolsey reflects on how she prioritized which committees she sought to serve on throughout her time in Congress.

The Honorable Lynn C. Woolsey, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded March 7, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Welfare Mother in Congress

The Honorable Lynn C. Woolsey describes talking openly to her colleagues about her experiences as a single mother on welfare.

The Honorable Lynn C. Woolsey, U.S. Representative of California
Interview recorded March 7, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)