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Pioneering Women in Congress

The following is a guest blog post by Christina Miskey and Allison Bailund, Law Library metadata interns, University of Washington MLIS students, and women’s history buffs.

Today is the 97th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote. In honor of this culmination of the women’s suffrage movement and the first major blockbuster superhero movie featuring women as both the star and director, we have gathered a list of some of the pioneering female superheroes in Congress, along with references to a few collections in the Library of Congress related to women’s history.

An artist’s rambles in Washington – No. 3: the Senate lobby and the floor of the House / from sketches by a staff artist. – Illus. in: Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, v. 57, 1884 Jan. 5, p. 309. The floor of the House before the call to order–Female lobbyists in the Marble Room of the Senate / Hyde.Library of Congress Prints & Photographs, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c21655.

Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin / Portrait, bust, facing left. c1916 Aug. 1. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a11030.

In 1916, just a few years before women were granted the right to vote via the Nineteenth Amendment, Jeannette Rankin was elected to the 65th Congress as a representative of Montana and sworn into office on April 2, 1917. Credited with being the only member of Congress to vote against going to war in both World War I and World War II, she was a committed pacifist. She was also a suffragist who helped found the Committee on Woman Suffrage and opened the first debate on the topic of women’s suffrage on the House floor. After her first term came to an end in 1919, she unsuccessfully ran for a second term.  Later, with the cloud of another war hovering, she ran for office again and served as congresswoman in the 77th Congress. She remained a figure in the pacifist community, and just before her death in 1973 at the age of 93, she considered another election campaign to fight against involvement in the Vietnam War.

Rebecca Latimer Felton

In 1922, Georgian Senator Tom Watson passed away suddenly, leaving an open Senate seat. Governor Thomas Hardwick saw an opportunity in the coming election, and appointed a former senator’s wife, Rebecca Felton, to the open seat. Appointed on October 3, 1922 with midterm elections just weeks away, Governor Hardwick never intended for Rebecca to be sworn in as an official senator. However, President Warren G. Harding called a special session of Congress and Rebecca was sworn in on November 20, 1922. While she only held the seat for a short time (24 hours), Rebecca Felton has the distinction of being the first woman senator. A prominent women’s rights, public education activist, and political writer in Georgia, she continued to write after her brief time in the Senate and passed away in 1930 at the age of 95.

Photographs shows Mrs. Hattie Wyatt Caraway, Senator from Arkansas, half-length portrait, standing at rostrum of the Senate, holding gavel in raised right hand, facing front.

Woman presides over Senate for short period. 1932 May 10. Photographs shows Mrs. Hattie Wyatt Caraway, Senator from Arkansas, half-length portrait, standing at rostrum of the Senate, holding gavel in raised right hand, facing front. Photo by ACME Newspictures, Inc. Forms part of: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.18504.

Hattie Caraway

When her husband passed away in 1931, Hattie Caraway was appointed to his Senate seat by Governor Harvey Parnell, and in 1932, she surprised many when she won the race in Arkansas and became the first elected woman senator. Hattie gained her political experience while helping her husband, Thaddeus Caraway, to victory in the House and Senate. She used her husband’s connections to become an advocate for women’s suffrage, and often spoke at women’s political groups. Known as “Silent Hattie” because she rarely spoke on the Senate floor, once explaining why: “I haven’t the heart to take a minute away from the men. The poor dears love it so.” She served in the Senate for 14 years beginning with the 72nd Congress and ending with the 78th. During her tenure, Hattie set many firsts for future women senators: she chaired the Enrolled Bills Committee, ran a Senate hearing, and became a senior Senate member. She was a strong advocate for the agricultural industry, often voting against President Roosevelt to pass legislation that was vital to her home state. She later served on two federal commissions, including the Commission Appeals Board until her passing in 1950.

Nancy Pelosi

Representative Nancy Pelosi has served in the House of Representatives for over 20 years on behalf of the state of California. As her seniority in the House grew, she was able to rise through the ranks and join party leadership. First, Nancy served as minority whip, and later was elected by her peers as the first female Speaker of the House. She served in this position from 2007 until 2011, when midterm elections shifted the party leadership in the House. As of 2017, Nancy continues to serve as the leader of the Democratic party in the House for the 114th Congress. She is active in promoting environmental legislation, healthcare reform, and increases in the federal minimum wage.


Further Reading

American Women: Law Library of Congress by Pamela Barnes Craig

This collection highlights women and their influence on laws and legislation over the course of American history. It gathers primary source materials and examines legislation and its impact on women, including sections such as women’s property law, marriage laws, and more.

Patsy T. Mink Papers

This collection highlights the records of Hawaiian Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink, who was an advocate of Title IX, and a prominent voice on education, welfare, civil rights, the environment and women’s rights. The collection was donated by her husband and daughter, and was partially digitized by the Manuscript Division. The full collection is available in the Manuscript Reading Room.

Legislating in Heels by Connie Morella

This is a webcast talk by Connie Morella, former congresswoman for Maryland and ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. She speaks about her career and about women’s role in politics and Congress.

Women in History: Elected Representatives by Kelly Buchanan

This is a post from the Library of Congress blog that briefly gives an overview of prominent women elected representatives from around the world.

Women in Congress, 1917-2006

Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration of the U.S. House of Representatives, by the Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives and approved by House Concurrent Resolution 66 in 2001. An electronic version is available through the catalog record.

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