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Women in Congress

A review by Jo Freeman published on Senior Women Web in April 2007.

Women in Congress Edited by Matthew A. Wasniewski, Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives; Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration of the U.S. House of Representatives; House Document 108-223 Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2006, vii; 1,008 pp, with appendices and index; more than 280 photographs
ISBN: 0-16-076753-9
Cloth $59

Women in Congress 1917–2006 is an impressive book. Researched and published by staff in the History office of the House of Representatives, it is a comprehensive resource on the 229 women who have served in both branches of the U.S. Congress since Jeannette Rankin first represented Montana ninety years ago.1

Rich with photographs, charts and fascinating information, it weighs almost nine pounds. Although the bulk of these pages are biographies of individual Members, there are several interpretive essays. Numerous footnotes identify sources for those who want to know still more. Nine Appendices fill 70 pages with lists of the women organized according to different attributes.

The book divides women Members of Congress into four successive generations, reflecting changes in gender roles and historical happenings. Of course any such division is a bit arbitrary, but not meaningless. It provides a way to see change happen over time.

The pioneers served from 1917 to 1934. Often perceived as curiosities, they sought to “fit in” to existing norms, limited by the fact that these norms revolved around the lifestyles, interests and resources of men. Almost half were political widows who followed their husbands into Congress though a few succeeded their fathers. The widows were often placeholders, as were other women who served one term or less. But at least four women (including three widows) had serious Congressional careers and several others served a respectable two or three terms.

The second generation of 1935-1954 came to Congress during major crises – the Depression and World War II. Merely a minority rather than a curiosity, women continued to push the boundaries. Some were appointed to key committees and a couple to leadership positions. Still too few to push a women’s program, they proposed some bills of special interest to women, such equal pay legislation, and revived the Equal Rights Amendment.

The third generation was first elected between 1955 and 1976; years when major social movements changed the political landscape. Many of these women represented the ideas of these movements and not just their geographic districts. Still marginal, they broke with tradition in many ways, including adding “sex” to several bills. The first women of color joined the Congress – Patsy Mink of Hawaii in 1965 and Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn, NY in 1969. More soon followed.

Women of the first three generations were profiled in a very thick booklet published for the 1976 bicentennial which was the predecessor to this volume. That probably explains why this book begins the fourth generation in 1977, even though 1973 marked a significant change in the kind of women coming to Congress.

The women who came to Congress in the 1970s looked more like men, but thought more like women. Political widows gave way to career women who had jobs and political experience similar to that of their male colleagues. Many, though not all, held feminist views. However 1977 was distinct as the year that women finally formed a Congresswomen’s Caucus which looked for ways to promote a feminist agenda.

There are many stories in this book, both individual and collective. Even the appendices disclose intriguing tidbits. The activist Sixties was the only decade that saw a steady decline in the numbers of women elected to Congress. This trend reversed in the 1970s, and leaped upward in 1993. Since the number of women elected to the state legislatures had jumped in 1972, by the 1992 “year of the woman” there were a critical number of women in that significant pipeline to Congress.

The highest party leadership post held by a woman in the Senate was between 1967 and 1973 when Margaret Chase Smith (ME) was Chair of the Republican Conference. In the House, women did not rise to the equivalent position until 2003 when Deborah Pryce (OH) became chair of the Republican House Conference, and Nancy Pelosi (CA) Leader of the Democratic Caucus. (Pelosi was elected Speaker on January 4, 2007 – after this book ends).

Women Members have been more racially diverse than men. Fifteen percent have been African- Asian- or Hispanic- Americans and their numbers steadily increase. All of them were elected within the last forty-two years. In the 109th Congress (2005-2006), 26% of all women M.Cs were not white or Anglo. In the House, non-white/Anglo women were 31% of members, while the Senate had none among the women.

This book is not bedtime reading or a beach book, but it is more than a research volume. Keep it handy for an occasional dip. Elegantly designed and modestly priced for a book this big, it’s also a suitable graduation present for an ambitious young woman. Getting it might give her a few ideas about what she can aspire to.


1.The actual number is 230 women by the end of 2006. On November 13, 2006 Shelly Sekula-Gibbs (R. TX) was elected to finish the term of Rep. Tom Delay, who had resigned. She only served until her Democratic successor took over on January 3. She is missing from the book because it closed in August.