January 14, 2015

Women have long history in Congress, but until recently there haven’t been many

The new Congress that convened this month includes a record 108 women — 88 in the House (including four nonvoting delegates) and 20 in the Senate. While women still account for only about a fifth of each chamber, that’s a considerable increase from where things stood not too long ago.

A new Pew Research Center report looks at American women in leadership roles, both in business and politics. Women have served in Congress almost continuously for nearly a century. Although in the early decades a common route for women to Capitol Hill was succeeding their deceased husbands, nowadays nearly all women in Congress were elected on their own. Recently, their ranks have surged: Of the 278 women who’ve served in the House, more than half have been elected since 1992, and 23 of the 46 women who’ve ever served in the Senate took office in 1996 or later.

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The first woman to serve in Congress, Republican Jeannette Rankin, was elected in 1916 to represent Montana, which had enfranchised women two years earlier. The 19th Amendment, which extended the right to vote across the nation, was ratified in 1920; that November, Alice Mary Robinson of Oklahoma became the first woman to defeat an incumbent congressman. (She, in turn, lost the seat back to him two years later.) In 1922, veteran suffragist Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia was appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat; when Congress was unexpectedly called back into session, Felton was sworn in as the first-ever female senator (though she only served for one day).

While women remained scarce in the Senate well into the 1980s, their numbers gradually, though not consistently, increased in the House — generally paralleling the expansion of women’s roles in society more broadly. In 1928, a then-record seven women were elected to the 71st Congress; two more joined them later via special election. But that upward progress plateaued during the Great Depression and World War II. It wasn’t until after the war that the upward trajectory of women in Congress resumed, peaking in 1961-62 when 18 women served in the House.

Although the 1970s saw prominent figures such as Barbara Jordan, Elizabeth Holtzman and Bella Abzug enter Congress, women’s overall numbers didn’t change much until 1981, when their House caucus exceeded 20 for the first time. The big jump, however, came in 1992 (subsequently dubbed “The Year of the Woman“) when four new female senators and 24 new congresswomen were elected. Academics have offered varied explanations for why 1992 was such a breakthrough year for women in Congress, including an unusually large number of open seats due to redistricting and backlash from the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill imbroglio.

Well into the 1970s, one of the most common ways for a woman to enter Congress was by succeeding her late husband or father, either by election or appointment. Of the 90 women who served in the House between 1916 and 1980, 31 were initially elected to their husband’s seat after he died; three were chosen to replace their husbands on the ballot when they died before Election Day; and one (Winnifred Mason Huck of Illinois) was elected in 1922 to fill the last four months of her late father’s term. (Another early congresswoman, Katherine Gudger Langley of Kentucky, won her husband’s seat in 1926 after he resigned following his conviction for violating Prohibition laws.)

women in congress who took husband seatLike Langley, most of the holders of these so-called “widow’s seats” stayed in Congress for only a term or two. But some went on to distinguished careers on Capitol Hill. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, for instance, won a special election in 1940 to fill the last seven months of her husband’s term; she went on to win four full House terms on her own, then was elected to four terms in the Senate (becoming thereby the first woman to serve in both chambers). Lindy Boggs, who was elected to her husband’s seat in 1973 after he was presumed killed in a plane crash, served nearly 18 years. She later was named U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

Six of the 14 women who served in the Senate before 1980 were either elected or appointed to fill their late husbands’ seats; of those, only two (Hattie Caraway of Arkansas and Maurine Brown Neuberger of Oregon) subsequently won full terms in their own right.

In the new Congress, women are a bigger component of the Democratic caucus than the Republican grouping. Women account for a third of all House Democrats and 32% of Senate Democrats, compared with 9% of House Republicans and 11% of Senate Republicans. Overall, there are 79 Democratic women and 29 Republican women in the new Congress. (Note: Our tallies may differ slightly from our latest women leadership report, which counts only voting members.)

Such Democratic dominance wasn’t always the case: Until the 1929 stock-market crash, most of the dozen women elected to the House were Republicans, and for several decades afterward the two parties were generally close. But the gap widened in the 1970s and — despite a temporary contraction during the Reagan-Bush 1980s — it has persisted. Of the 164 women elected to the House since 1990, 112 (69%) have been Democrats; 18 of the 27 women (67%) elected to the Senate over the same period have been Democrats.

Topics: Congress, Gender

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.

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