May 14, 1971
First Female Pages Appointed
On May 14, 1971, Paulette Desell and Ellen McConnell made history. Thanks to the appointments of Senators Jacob Javits and Charles Percy, these two 16-year-olds became the first females to serve as Senate pages.
Senator Daniel Webster had selected the first male page nearly a century and a half earlier. Proving that personal connections counted in those days, he chose Grafton Hanson, the nine-year-old grandson of the Senate sergeant at arms. In 1831, the Senate added a second page—12-year-old Isaac Bassett. As the son of a Senate messenger, Bassett also benefitted from family connections.
Beginning a tradition in which service as a page sometimes became the first step on a Senate career path, Hanson held a variety of increasingly responsible Senate jobs over the next 10 years. Bassett, who is well known to students of 19th-century Senate folklore, remained in the Senate's employ for the rest of his long life. In 1861, he became assistant Senate doorkeeper—a post in which he earned the legendary distinction of being the official who stopped a Massachusetts soldier from bayoneting the Senate desk previously occupied by Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis. In late-19th-century engravings showing the Senate struggling to wrap up end-of-session legislation, former page Bassett appears as the elderly man in the long white beard moving the chamber clock's minute hand backwards from the twelve o'clock adjournment time to gain a few precious minutes to complete the Senate's work.
By the 1870s, the Senate required pages to be at least 12 and no older than 16, although those limits were occasionally ignored. Until the early 1900s, pages were responsible for arranging their formal schooling during Senate recesses. In various page memoirs, there runs a common theme that no classroom could offer the educational experience available on the floor of the Senate. At Vice President Thomas Marshall's 1919 Christmas dinner for pages, 17-year-old Mark Trice explained, "A Senate page studying history and shorthand has a better opportunity than a schoolboy of learning the same subjects, because we are constantly in touch with both. We boys have an opportunity to watch the official reporters write shorthand and they will always answer questions that we do not understand, thereby making a teacher almost useless." By May 1971, long after the Senate had established a professionally staffed page school, "we boys," had finally become, "we boys and we girls."
U.S. Congress. Senate. The Senate, 1789-1989, Vol. 2, by Robert C. Byrd. 100th Cong., 1st sess., 1991. S. Doc.100-20.
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| Transcript: Letter from Sergeant at Arms Explaining Why Females Should Not Be Pages, 1961