Outstanding Women Members of Congress

By Danielle Scull, USCHS Intern

Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) may be best remembered as the sole Member of Congress to oppose American entry into WWII, but she was more than just a pacifist. Rankin’s election to the US House of Representatives in 1916, the first by a woman, was a foretaste of the feminization of American politics in the twentieth century. A full two years before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, Rankin served as a role model for women fighting for equal rights.

Rankin is just one of twelve women featured in the United States Capitol Historical Society’s book, Outstanding Women Members of Congress, by Dr. Shirley Washington. Others include Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME), Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) and Geraldine Ferraro (D-NY).

The careers of each of the women featured in Washington’s book attest to the struggles women faced in obtaining equality. The women’s suffrage movement can be traced to 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and other women leaders gathered at Seneca Falls, NY to advocate rights for women including better divorce laws, childcare laws, and the right to vote. The meeting led to a manifesto, the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” that stated, “all men and women are created equal.” With the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the women’s suffrage movement had achieved its initial goal.

Even as women won political freedom, however, social conventions still limited their public and business roles. That began to change with some of the progressive New Deal legislation of the 1930’s. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935, many women felt empowered to challenge their socially sterotyped roles. These New Deal programs provided work for women in areas that had previously gone unexplored, including government service. Congresswoman Helen Douglas (D-CA) attributed her political career in part to the WPA, because it encouraged and inspired her to reach beyond the gender stereotypes.

Still, the majority of the first “wave” of women to enter politics did so in more traditional ways. Known as “widow successors,” because they often occupied the seats vacated when their husbands died in office, these women lacked the institutional means to address issues that as Lindy Boggs (D-LA), had worked in their husband’s office and had a working knowledge of the legislative process and key issues. As a sponser of an amendment to the Small Business Act and as a creator of the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, Boggs is an example of how congresswomen forged ahead with new issues and became notable Members in their own right.

Women with prior experience, like Boggs, shared many of the ideas and goals of the second “wave” of women, those who entered politics, and increasingly, the work force, after WWII. These women, empowered by the WPA and involvement in local activist groups, downplayed their femininity, wanting to be seen as equal to their male counterparts. Congresswoman Ella Grasso (D-CT) was a prime example. In 1943 she joined the League of Women Voters, where she learned about legislative issues and procedures. After serving in her state government, Grasso was elected to Congress in 1971. She was very active in drafting legislation, sponsoring the Education Act, Fair Labor Standards Amendment and Emergency Empolyment Act in her first year. After serving in Congress, Grasso went on to become the first woman governor in the state of Connecticut.

The third “wave” of women won election to Congress in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, riding the crest of feminism. They established the Congresswomen’s Caucus which fought to bring women’s issues to the forefront of the political agenda. Originally created to unite the few women in Congress, the caucus faced problems because many female Members were afraid to join for fear of alienating their male colleagues. In order to expand membership, the caucus changed its name to the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, allowed men to join and focused on issues relating to women’s health, economic equity, education, domestic violence, child care, child support and sexual harassment. In January 1995 the House voted to abolish the Legislative Service Organizations, which funded the Congressional Caucuses. The Congresswomen reorganized as an informal Caucus with the same same, and a nonprofit organization called Women’s Policy Inc. continues to carry on the Caucus’s information and policy analysis.

Today, more women than ever are being elected to local, county, state and federal positions. They have brought to the forefront many issues that would probably have gone unnoticed such as childcare, equal opportunity for women and the challenges of working single parents. But there is still room for progress. Women make up more than 50% of the U.S. population and yet they account for less than 20% of the House membership. In 1992, a study by the Congressional Research Service pointed out that at the current rate of growth, it would take 432 years before women would have a majority in the House.

Knowledge of our past is important in understanding our future. Equally important is the recognition of those who have paved the way for women today. Dr. Washington’s book, Outstanding Women Members of Congress pays tribute to just some of the Congresswomen who have helped create opportunities and serve as role models for young women today.


Originally Published: 1999