OAKAR, Mary Rose

OAKAR, Mary Rose
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1940–

Biography

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 anti-abortion 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. “We were very oriented toward our neighborhood,” Oakar recalled. “I came from a very diverse community, which I love. . . . I went to school and grew up with people of all backgrounds and races. I think that dealing with my peers was a great experience in preparation for being in public life.”1 Working her way through school as a telephone operator, Oakar graduated from Ursuline College in 1962 with a BA, and earned an MA 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.2 Oakar’s time on the city council provided valuable political experience. “And I think my city council training was very helpful when I came to Congress because I knew how to read a budget,” she said. “When I came to Congress, we made it, our staff and I made it our business to know what the budget had in it. We would give a briefing to some of our reporters about what we thought the budget said. I thought it was very, very helpful.”3

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 Vincent 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 or more women in Congress to offset what she perceived as the arrogance exuded by many Congressmen. As the only woman, Oakar stood out in the crowded field but also was the target of condescending campaign ads. One of her opponents, for instance, questioned her ability to take on the rigors of Congress. “He did an ad saying, ‘You know, if you want a weakling,’ that sort of thing,” she explained, “‘You want somebody soft on the issues.’ I mean he didn’t even have to say woman, but that’s what he was talking about it.”4 She also highlighted her Cleveland roots when making campaign stops and found creative ways to reach voters. “So we would go in this Model T Ford all over the district, which was pretty large,” she remarked. “And people would come out because they wanted to see the car, and then I’d get to meet them. So that was sort of a way to get to know a lot of the people and get around 12 suburbs and half the city of Cleveland.”5 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.6

In the 95th Congress (1977–1979), Oakar served on the Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee. “When I was elected to Congress,” Oakar noted, “I got on the Banking and Urban Affairs Committee because I wanted to do something about community development. . . . That was my first piece of legislation for HUD programs to improve public housing.”7 As a member of the committee she also introduced successful legislation to commemorate the work of suffragist Susan B. Anthony by creating a $1 coin featuring her likeness.8 Oakar eventually chaired the Banking Subcommittee on Economic Stabilization. She 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.”9 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 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.10 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.” Oakar 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.”11

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 Reagan administration’s foreign policy tilted too much toward the interests of Israel. On another front, her opposition to abortion caused friction with powerful women’s groups like the National Organization for Women, 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.”12

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 Anne 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 P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. of Massachusetts that she expected to be treated as an equal. “So I went to Tip,” Oakar noted. “And Tip said, ‘Eleanor,’ who was his secretary, ‘Get President Reagan on the phone.’ I heard him. He said, ‘If Mary Rose Oakar isn’t invited’—because the White House invites you—‘I’m not going. She’s the Secretary of the caucus.’ So I got to go.”13 Quite often the only woman in attendance, she compared herself to Ferraro, commenting, “Each of us had to break down a barrier.”14 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 lost to then-Budget Chairman William Herbert Gray III of Pennsylvania.15

In the spring of 1992, Congresswoman Oakar received her first significant primary challenge in her newly reapportioned 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.16 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 39 to 30 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.17 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 30,000 votes, 57 to 43 percent.18

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.19 Oakar’s work on behalf of the elderly continued, however, as President William J. (Bill) 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 2003.20 In June 2003, Oakar was named President of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Footnotes

1“The Honorable Mary Rose Oakar Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (2 March 2017): 3. The interview transcript is available online.

2Michelle Ruess, “Oakar’s Loss a Blunder, Not a Coup,’ 8 November 1992, Cleveland Plain Dealer: 1B; Karen Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999): 209.

3“Oakar Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 54–55.

4“Oakar Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 6.

5“Oakar Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 11.

6“Mary Rose Oakar,” Associated Press Candidate Biographies, 1992; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

7“Oakar Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 4.

8Congressional Record, House, 95th Cong., 2nd sess. (14 June 1978): 17712; Congressional Record, House, 95th Cong., 2nd sess. (11 July 1978): 20139; Congressional Record, House, 95th Cong., 2nd sess. (14 July 1978): 21044.

9Steven V. Roberts, “Of Women and Women’s Issues,” 8 October 1985, New York Times: A20.

10“Equal Pay Bill Labeled Anti-Family,” 5 April 1984, Washington Post: A4.

11Juan Williams, “Retorts Traded in Hill Hearing on Comparable-Worth Issue,” 5 April 1985, Washington Post: A2.

12Roberts, “Of Women and Women’s Issues.”

13“Oakar Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 43.

14“Oakar Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 43.

15Chuck Conconi, “Personalities,” 6 December 1988, Washington Post: E3; “Oakar Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 44–46.

16Karin Schulz, “‘Mary Rose’ Takes Old-Fashioned View of Campaigning,” 20 September 2001, Cleveland Plain Dealer: B1; Adam Clymer, “Congresswoman Is Facing Difficult Challenge in Ohio,” 27 May 1992, New York Times: A19; Susan B. Glasser, “How Did Mary Rose Pull It Off?,” 8 June 1992, Roll Call: n.p. Previously, in 1987, the Ethics Committee reprimanded Oakar for having kept a former aide on the payroll two years after she had left Oakar’s office, and for giving another aide a $10,000 pay raise at the time that she and Oakar bought a house together. Oakar repaid the money and survived the incidents largely unscathed. For information on the reprimand, see the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct history of disciplinary actions at https://ethics. house.gov/sites/ethics.house.gov/files/Historical_Chart_Final_Version%20 in%20Word_0.pdf.

17Glasser, “How Did Mary Rose Pull It Off?”

18“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

19“Ex-Congresswoman Denies Seven Felonies,” 5 March 1995, New York Times: 14.

20Representative Oakar describes her time in the Ohio state house in her oral history. “Oakar Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 52–54.

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

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External Research Collections

University of Oklahoma
The Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive, Department of Communication

Norman, OK
Videocassette: 1988, 4 commercials on 1 videocassette. The commercials were used during Mary Rose Oakar's campaign for the 1988 U.S. congressional election in District 20 of Ohio, Democratic Party.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Mary Rose Oakar" 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 - Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs
    • Economic Stabilization - Chair
    • International Development, Finance, Trade, and Monetary Policy - Chair
  • House Committee - House Administration
    • Libraries and Memorials - Chair
    • Personnel and Police - Chair
  • House Committee - Post Office and Civil Service
    • Compensation and Employee Benefits - Chair
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Aging
  • Joint Committee - Joint Committee on the Library
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Related Media

Making History for Women: Part One

The Honorable Mary Rose Oakar discusses advice she received from Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro after she was elected secretary of the Democratic Caucus. 

The Honorable Mary Rose Oakar, U.S. Representative of Ohio
Interview recorded March 2, 2017 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Making History for Women: Part Two

The Honorable Mary Rose Oakar explains how she made history at a White House meeting.

The Honorable Mary Rose Oakar, U.S. Representative of Ohio
Interview recorded March 2, 2017 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Building Support for a Women's Caucus

The Honorable Mary Rose Oakar explains her role in building support for a women’s caucus. 

The Honorable Mary Rose Oakar, U.S. Representative of Ohio
Interview recorded March 2, 2017 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)