Margaret Bayard Smith was an avid writer of letters before she began writing for the National Intelligencer, Washington, D.C.’s first newspaper, in the 1820s. An articulate observer of the Senate's early years, Smith's accounts of the dramatic exchanges between Senators Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne provided a richly detailed portrait of this historic debate. “Almost everyone is thronging to the capitol to hear Mr. Webster’s reply,” she wrote a friend on January 26, 1830. “The Senate Chamber is the present arena and never were the amphitheaters of Rome more crowded.”
Jane Swisshelm, an abolitionist writer and women’s rights activist, convinced the New York Tribune to hire her as a Washington correspondent. When she arrived in the Senate, she was seated not in the press gallery, but in the public gallery. Swisshelm petitioned Vice President Millard Fillmore to change seats. “He was much surprised, and tried to dissuade me,” she reported. He argued that “the place would be very unpleasant for a lady.” Swisshelm insisted, however, becoming the first woman to take a seat in the press gallery on April 17, 1850.
During the Civil War era, Lucy Pomeroy, the abolitionist wife of Kansas senator Samuel Pomeroy, worked tirelessly to provide assistance to fugitive slaves, mainly women and children, then arriving in the District of Columbia. She lobbied members of Congress and raised money for an orphanage. Her efforts paid off when Congress approved the charter for the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children on February 14, 1863. Its board elected Pomeroy to serve as its first president. Pomeroy died a few months later of typhoid fever.
Working closely with Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, the women of the National Loyal League—an organization dedicated to the abolition of slavery—diligently collected signatures in support of their cause. From town after town, state after state, petitions arrived at the Senate, bringing hundreds, and then thousands, of signatures. On February 9, 1864, in a moment of high drama, Sumner presented a petition carrying 100,000 signatures to the Senate.
Senate employee Kate Brown was seriously injured on February 8, 1868, when police officers employed by the Washington and Alexandria Railway denied her a seat and forcibly ejected her from the train—because she was African American. When her story gained the attention of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, a Senate committee investigated the incident, took Brown’s testimony from her sick bed, and reported in her favor. Brown then sued the railway. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and Brown prevailed, winning a small cash settlement for her mistreatment.
Prominent suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, petitioned senators to approve a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. Their testimony before the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections on January 11, 1878, marked a Senate milestone: the first time a woman formally testified before a Senate committee.
In the early 20th century the Senate benefited from a small but talented group of female staff. One of those pioneers was Leona Wells, who joined the Senate's clerical staff on January 14, 1901, and remained on the payroll for the next 25 years. Congressional correspondents dubbed Wells, likely the first woman to hold to a professional clerical position in the Senate, “the best-paid woman in Washington.”
Weeks after Congress declared war with Germany in 1917, Mimosa Pittman, wife of Nevada senator Key Pittman, founded a local branch of the American Red Cross. On April 18, 1917, Pittman and two dozen Senate wives assembled in a basement room of the Senate Office Building, wrote a constitution and bylaws, and elected officers. They named the group the Ladies of the Senate.
Beginning in the 19th century, suffragists conducted a decades-long campaign to win women’s right to vote in national elections. One of their key strategists, Maud Younger, devised a successful lobbying operation that helped to secure Senate passage of the Nineteenth Amendment on June 4, 1919.
Appointed to fill a vacancy, 87-year-old Rebecca Felton of Georgia, a Democrat, became the first female senator in 1922. After taking the oath on November 21, 1922, she served just 24 hours and gave only one speech in the Senate Chamber, but her brief tenure in the Senate tore down a long-standing barrier to women. Felton predicted a new day for women in politics. “When the women of the country come in and sit with you . . . , you will get ability, you will get integrity . . . and you will get unstinted usefulness.”
Appointed in 1931 to fill a vacancy caused by the death of her husband, Arkansas Democrat Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the Senate after winning the special election for the remainder of her husband’s term. She then defied expectations when she announced her plan to run for a full Senate term on May 9, 1932. “I really want to try out my own theory of a woman running for office,” she wrote in her diary. Pundits scoffed, but they underestimated the tenacious widow who handily won that election. She served in the Senate from 1931 to 1945.
When Gladys Pyle of South Dakota won a special election to the Senate, she added two “firsts” to her long list of accomplishments in public service—the first Republican woman to become a U.S. senator and the first woman to represent South Dakota in the Senate. During her short term of two months, she championed highway projects, promoted WPA programs, investigated a sale of land inside a state park, and aided Native Americans seeking mortgage assistance.
After serving more than four terms in the House of Representatives, Margaret Chase Smith won election to the Senate in 1948 and, on January 3, 1949, became the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. During her 24 years in the Senate, Smith established a reputation for her independence and was viewed as a tough legislator on the Senate Armed Services Committee. In 1964 she became the first woman to actively seek the presidential nomination of a major political party.
“Smith vs. Cormier, 1960.” It sounds like a prize fight between two heavyweight boxing champions. Actually, it was a historic election between two contenders for a seat in the U.S. Senate. In one corner—the defending champion, Republican Margaret Chase Smith, popular senior senator from Maine. In the opposite corner—Democratic contender Lucia Cormier. For the first time in Senate history, both major party candidates were women.
Jane Hart, a licensed pilot, member of the historic Mercury 13 women astronauts-in-training program, and wife of Senator Philip Hart of Michigan, testified before a House committee in support of women astronauts. "It is inconceivable to me that the world of outer space should be restricted to men only, like some sort of stag club," Hart said.
Three high school girls broke a long Senate tradition when they were sworn in as the Chamber's first female pages. Julie Price recalled her response when she learned of the “boys only” page policy during a conversation with her congressman. “I approached him and said . . . . that I wanted to be a page . . . . He said, ‘That’s a great idea, but . . . . girls aren’t allowed.’ I was stunned . . . . I said, ‘Is there anything we can do to change that?’”
Carol Moseley Braun was elected as the first female U.S. senator from Illinois and the first African American woman to serve in the Senate. Three other women—Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington State—also prevailed in their races. They made history as the largest group of women elected to the Senate up to that time. Journalists called it the “Year of the Woman.”
Senator Nancy Kassebaum, a Republican representing the state of Kansas, became the first woman to lead a modern Senate standing committee, the Labor and Human Resources Committee, a predecessor of today’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Known for her moderate but independent stand on issues, Kassebaum served in the Senate from 1978 to 1997 and chaired the committee from 1995 to 1997.
Barbara Mikulski of Maryland surpassed Margaret Chase Smith’s 24-year service record in the Senate, becoming the longest-serving woman in the Senate. Two years later, she became the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Congress. In 2012 Democrats selected Mikulski to chair the Appropriations Committee, the first woman to serve in that role. She held the position until January 2015. Upon her retirement on January 3, 2017, Mikulski had served a total of 40 years in Congress.