Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


As a working single mother, Lynn Woolsey spent several years receiving public assistance to help get by 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,” Woolsey focused on issues facing children and families during her 20-year career in the House of Representatives.2

Lynn Woolsey was born Lynn Carol Robinson in Seattle, Washington, on November 3, 1937, to John Linn and Virginia Elizabeth Robinson. Woolsey and her older sister Joan spent their adolescence in Seattle. A graduate of Seattle’s Lincoln High School, Woolsey attended the University of Washington from 1955 to 1957. She left school to marry Terry J. Critchett in 1958. His 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, Woolsey found a secretarial job at a local technology company and applied for welfare assistance to help get by. She eventually became a human resources manager at the 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 returned to college and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Francisco in 1980.3

Woolsey first entered politics in 1984 when she won a seat on the Petaluma city council Sonoma County. She served on the city council until 1992 and was vice mayor for the last year of her tenure.4

In 1992, when five-term incumbent California Representative Barbara Boxer decided to run for the United States 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. In the general election against Republican Bill Filante, a California assemblyman, Woolsey ran on a platform that emphasized her experiences as a single mother, businesswoman, and local council member. “That identified me as somebody who had walked her talk,” she recalled. Voters, she continued, “really respected the fact that I’d struggled and prevailed and knew what I was talking about.”5 Woolsey held a sizeable lead throughout the race, and Filante suspended his campaign in September 1992 following 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 won the next seven elections by comfortable margins. In 2010 she was elected to the 112th Congress (2011–2013) with 66 percent of the vote.6

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. When the Democrats took control of the House in the 110th and 111th Congresses (2007–2011), Woolsey served as chair of the Education and Labor Committee’s Workforce Protections Subcommittee, and served as Ranking Member of the subcommittee in the 112th Congress (2011–2013) after returning to the House minority.7

As subcommittee chair, Woolsey’s measure to provide job-protected leave for family members of injured soldiers was incorporated into the 2008 defense authorization bill. 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.”8

From her seat on the Education and Workforce Committee, Woolsey used her personal experience on government assistance to shape how House Democrats approached the welfare-reform debates of the 1990s. She was sharply critical of legislation that reduced the scope of and imposed lifetime benefit limits for many programs. Woolsey advocated expanding childcare programs and supported paid parental-leave policies.9 She introduced several bills to make school breakfast programs available to all children and to make teenagers eligible for after school snack programs. Her provisions were included in a child nutrition reauthorization bill in the 105th Congress (1997– 1999). In the 107th Congress, she sponsored a measure that required the Internal Revenue Service to help enforce child support payments.10

She also worked to support students interested in the STEM fields. In the 106th and 107th Congresses (1999–2003), she introduced “Go, Girl” legislation to encourage young girls to study science and math.11 In the 111th Congress (2009–2011), Woolsey submitted an amendment to a research and development bill to increase the involvement of women and minorities in the sectors of network and information technology by promoting computer science programs for elementary, middle, and high school students. Woolsey argued that this would make “more students exposed to innovative, engaging, and rigorous computer science curriculum at the K–12 level.”12

A prominent member of the Out of Iraq Caucus, Woolsey criticized the George W. Bush administration’s prosecution of the war, voted consistently to suspend funding for the war, and introduced a bill to redirect $60 billion in Pentagon funds toward domestic civilian programs. Woolsey sponsored the Iraq War Powers Repeal Act of 2006 to negate Congress’s authorization of military force in Iraq, but the bill died in committee.13

Throughout her House career, Woolsey petitioned the Bush and Barack Obama administrations to adopt the Sensible, Multilateral American Response to Terrorism (“SMART”) security strategy. Woolsey advocated for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and called for military leaders to address “the root causes of terrorism by engaging our international partners and humanitarian community.”14 At the start of the Obama administration, Woolsey supported the President’s efforts to draw down troops and end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She later objected to President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan in 2011.15

Woolsey sponsored legislation that helped military families with combat injuries and their readjustment to civilian life. “It was so clear that veterans were coming back, and they needed a lot of help,” she said. “And I was not for the wars, ever, but I certainly was for veterans.”16 During the 110th Congress, she sponsored the Support for Injured Servicemembers Act which provided six months of unpaid, job-protected leave to the relatives of service members who were injured in the line of duty. The bill became law in January 2008 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. 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.”17

Woolsey served as a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus during the 111th Congress. The caucus sought to “show that there was a left edge to the Democrats,” Woolsey said, and it proposed a “People’s Budget” as an alternative spending plan that, she later said, “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.”18

Throughout her congressional career, Woolsey tended to her northern California district. She delivered hundreds of millions of dollars back home 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.19

After 20 years of service, Woolsey announced her retirement from the House at the end of the 112th Congress.20 In her farewell speech, Woolsey addressed 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.”21


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.

2“Lynn’s Biography,” official website of Representative Lynn Woolsey, 24 October 2005, https://web.archive.org/web/20051024205149/http://woolsey.house.gov/meetlynn.asp.

3Lynn 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, DC: http://search.ancestrylibrary.com (accessed 14 August 2012); California Marriage Index, 1960–1985, Library of Congress, Washington, DC: http://search.ancestrylibrary.com (accessed 14 August 2012); Politics in America, 2000 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1999): 99; Congressional Directory, 112th Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2012): 22.

4Politics in America, 2000: 99; Congressional Directory, 112th Cong., 2nd sess.: 22.

5“The Honorable Lynn C. Woolsey Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (7 March 2016): 4. The interview transcript is available online.

6Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; California secretary of state, “Primary Election-Statement of Vote, June 2, 1992,” accessed 20 March 2020, https://elections.cdn.sos.ca.gov/sov/1992-primary/us-representative.pdf; “Politics Aside, California GOP Candidate Battles for His Life,” 13 October 1992, Associated Press.

7Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Women Members’ Committee Assignments (Standing, Joint, Select) in the U.S. House, 1917–Present.

8Politics in America, 2010 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2009): 81; National Defense Authorization Act, PL 110-181, 122 Stat. 3 (2008); “House Includes Woolsey Proposal to Help Military Families in Bi-Partisan SCHIP Bill,” official website of Representative Lynn Woolsey, press release, 1 November 2007, https://web.archive.org/web/20071101061915/http://woolsey.house.gov/latestnews.asp?ARTICLE5110=2151542& PG5110=1.

9Colman McCarthy, “For One on Hill, Welfare Vote Was Personal,” 13 August 1996, Washington Post: C10; Balancing Act of 2005, H.R. 1589. 109th Cong. (2005).

10Meals for Achievement Act, H.R. 3086, 105th Cong. (1997); A bill to amend the child and adult care food program under the National School Lunch Act to revise the eligibility of private organizations under that program, H.R. 3405, 105th Cong. (1998); A bill to amend the National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 to improve and expand the school lunch and related programs under those Acts, H.R. 3582, 103rd Cong. (1993); William F. Goodling Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act of 1998, PL 105-336, 112 Stat. 3143 (1998); A bill to amend part D of title IV of the Social Security Act to improve the collection of child support arrears in interstate cases, H.R. 5061, 107th Cong. (2002).

11Almanac of American Politics, 2002 (Washington, DC: National Journal Group, 2001):175; Politics in America, 2004 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2003): 79.

12“House Passes Woolsey Initiative to Encourage Women and Minorities to Study Computer Science,” official website of Representative Lynn Woolsey, 24 June 2009, https://web.archive.org/web/20090624234108/http://woolsey.house.gov/latestnews.asp?ARTICLE5110=2845148.

13Iraq War Powers Repeal Act of 2006, H.R. 5875, 109th Cong. (2006); Politics in America, 2008 (Washington, DC: 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.

14Calling for the adoption of a Sensible, Multilateral American Response to Terrorism (“SMART”) Security Platform for the 21st Century, H. Con. Res. 392, 108th Cong. (2004); Calling for the adoption of a Sensible, Multilateral American Response to Terrorism (“SMART”) Security Platform for the 21st Century, H. Res. 227, 110th Cong. (2007); Congressional Record, House, 109th Cong., 2nd sess. (25 January 2005): H172; Lynn C. Woolsey, “It’s Time for Smart Security,” 1 December 2009, Politico, https://www.politico.com/story/2009/12/its-time-for-smart-security-030008. Woolsey introduced H. Res. 227 during the 110th Congress.

15For 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.

16“Woolsey Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 17.

17Support for Injured Servicemembers Act, H.R. 3481, 110th Cong. (2007); “Woolsey’s Military Family Bill Signed into Law,” official website of Representative Lynn Woolsey, 29 January 2008, https://web.archive.org/web/20080326194116/http://woolsey.house.gov/latestnews.asp?ARTICLE5110=2154177.

18“Woolsey Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 31; Almanac of American Politics, 2008 (Washington, DC: National Journal Group, 2007): 179; Almanac of American Politics, 2012 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011): 147; Politics in America, 2008: 83; “Woolsey Touts 'People’s Budget,' Says Bringing Home Troops is ‘Moral Imperative’ and ‘Fiscal Common Sense,’” official website of Representative Lynn Woolsey, 1 June 2011, https://web.archive.org/web/20110601195521/http://woolsey.house.gov/index.cfm?sectionid=18&parentid=6&sectiontree=6,18&itemid=964.

19Pamela J. Podger, “Woolsey Smokes Challenger in Primary,” 6 March 2002, San Francisco Chronicle: A24.

20Melanie Starkey, “Woolsey to Retire After Two Decades in House,” 27 June 2011, Roll Call, https://www.rollcall.com/2011/06/27/woolsey-to-retire-after-two-decades-in-house/.

21Congressional 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)