Looking at the history of women in Congress — the work is just beginning

  /  03.08.2021

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

The 117th Congress features a fresh crop of newcomers who, like the 116th freshmen before them, help make their congressional meeting the most diverse in the history of our legislative branch. Among other quantifiers the 117th Congress sworn in earlier this year includes more women than any Congress in history. And yet, while we instinctively view historic firsts and increasing numbers of members from underrepresented groups as automatic indicators of progress, an analysis of the history of women in politics including from the most recent batches of incoming congresswomen paints a more complex picture.

In 1917, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman to serve in Congress, bringing with her an influence which many would naturally connect to femininity, as the pacifist was the only congressperson to oppose both the declaration of war on Germany and the declaration of war on Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Unlike Representative Rankin, however, the first woman elected to the Senate showed a much less humane disposition in the form of staunch pro-lynching stances. Georgia’s Rebecca Felton obtained this position when she was appointed to fill a vacancy in 1922. She was a slave-owning white supremacist who once advocated for the lynching of Black men in a speech saying, “…if it needs lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts — then I say lynch, a thousand a week, if necessary.”

The next woman to serve in the Senate — the first woman to actually be elected, as opposed to appointed — Hattie Caraway, supported nearly every one of Franklin Roosevelt’s progressive New Deal measures with the exception of those attempting to improve the quality of life for Black Americans, including an anti-lynching bill that she helped to filibuster.

Taking over her deceased husband’s seat in 1931, Caraway continued what would become a long tradition of widows filling their deceased spouses’ positions in Congress beginning in the 1920s with widows-turned-congresswomen, Mae Ellen Nolan and Florence Kahn, the latter being the first Jewish woman to serve the House.

Widows were often recruited by party leaders to hold these seats as mere placeholders until they were able to find an appropriate male candidate to nominate. They “capitalized on public sympathy to ensure that the party held the seat in the interim,” according to an article in the Political Research Quarterly.

This widely overlooked tactic has played a major role in the history of women being welcomed into Congress, adding a layer of bleakness to the reality of our society’s resistance to gender equality in politics. Of the 39 women who entered the House of Representatives as their husbands’ successors, approximately half served no longer than two years — many of them were simply political pawns.

A couple notable and eerily coincidental exceptions were Corinne “Lindy” Boggs and Cardiss Collins. Both women entered the House of Representatives in 1973 to fill the vacancies left by their husbands who perished in separate 1972 plane crashes. Boggs, who championed women’s rights; and Collins, an advocate for Medicare expansion and affirmative action, enjoyed 17 and 24 years, respectively, in the House.

As more women entered Congress, most of whom were elected despite the absence of a deceased former congressman husband, historic firsts continued to be recorded. Perhaps only significant in terms of cultural symbolism is U.S. Representative Charlotte Reid, who was the first woman to wear pants in Congress in 1969. Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both the House and the Senate, believed that women’s traditional role of managing the household was “ideal experience” for politics. During her political career, which spanned decades until 1973, Smith became an expert in military affairs and aeronautics, and has been credited with playing an integral role in getting a man to the moon.

Patsy Mink, a Japanese American from Hawaii, was elected to the House as the first woman of color in either chamber of Congress in 1965. Four years later, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman in either chamber of Congress. Chisholm, an outspoken feminist, was vocal about the sexism she faced including from her fellow congressmen and prominent Black political figures. As a member of Congress, she pushed programs like Head Start and free school lunches.

Although it was Chisholm who sparked the political passion in a young Mill’s College student and future congresswoman named Barbara Lee, it would be in Jeannette Rankin’s antiwar footsteps that Lee would follow, standing alone as the sole vote in Congress against the authorization of the use of force against Iraq following 9/11.

Despite women serving in our nation’s legislative branch for over a century, history is still being made with each election cycle. Reflecting on this, a paradox emerges in which every history-making moment — representing progress and inclusion — ultimately highlights the stagnant and exclusionary state of legislature at the federal lever. While the 117th House of Representatives showcases record-setting numbers of women, Black, Latino, and LGBTQ members, as well as the first Korean American and Iranian American congresswomen, these numbers are far from approaching proportional representation.

Further, some records are too abysmal to celebrate, as they underline the insidiousness of white supremacy and patriarchy in our country. How is it, for example, that the United States was built on land stolen from Native Americans and the first Native American women in Congress, Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, were sworn in just two short years ago? Why did it take 101 years after the first woman was elected to Congress for enough women to enter politics during a single election year to finally hear the term “the year of the woman”?

Newcomer Cori Bush, the first Black congresswoman from Missouri, rose to prominence in activism during the Ferguson protests following the killing of Mike Brown. The Black Lives Matter organizer has been unapologetic in pushing a social justice agenda. This commitment to advocating on behalf of demographics with the least political power is also seen in representatives like Lauren Underwood, who became the youngest Black woman to serve in Congress in 2018. Underwood, along with Congresswoman Alma Adams, founded the Black Maternal Health Caucus to address the maternal health crisis in the Black community where women are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth than their white counterparts.

The most notable rookie wavemakers of the last few years are unquestionably the four progressive women who quickly became known as “The Squad.” This cohort of first-term congresswomen is made up of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim women elected to Congress; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress, and Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts. The Squad attracted not only racist and sexist attacks from the right led by Former President Trump, but they’ve also attracted intense scrutiny for their Democratic viewpoints.

Although women like those in The Squad inspire some hope for the future of progress in politics, freshmen congresswomen like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert have made clear their intention to counter progressive efforts in Congress. Both women have successfully attracted outsized media attention, primarily due to their roles in the Jan 6 riot at the Capitol and their public embrace of conspiracy theories. Greene and Boebert, like congresswomen before them, have exhibited little interest in moving the U.S. forward — or even women for that matter. They may not be calling for lynching of Black men like their congressional foremothers but the underlying sentiment isn’t much of a deviation.

And yet, while an examination of the history of women in Congress leads you to cases that profoundly contradict what we collectively view as traditional traits of femininity — gentleness, empathy, humility — it is vitally important that we intensify our push for more women legislators. From activist congresswomen like Shirley Chisholm, who was endorsed by the Black Panthers; and Cori Bush, who was hoisted into office on the shoulders of abolitionist organizers to the seekers of peace like Jeannette Rankin and Barbara Lee, who unapologetically opposed war, there are numerous exceptional examples of women in Congress who’ve fought for the greater good with an emphasis on improving the material conditions of those most in need. These are the legacies we must strive to continue.


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