To commemorate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, ratified on August 18, 1920, and to recognize the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, Rebecca Felton, who took the oath of office on November 21, 1922, the Senate Historical Office is conducting oral histories with former senators, officers, and staff. The interviews included in this ongoing project document women’s impact on the institution and its legislative business. By recording and preserving their stories, we hope to develop a fuller, richer understanding of women’s role in the Senate and in governing the nation.
Often working behind the scenes, Senate staff provide support that is essential to the institution’s operation. These interviews represent a diverse group of personalities who experienced firsthand the many challenges of life on Capitol Hill. Their recollections offer unique perspectives on the evolving role of women in the Senate, highlight their work on committees and in members’ offices, and bring attention to their countless other contributions.
Return to Women of the Senate Oral History Project
A graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Judy Ansley joined the professional staff of the Committee on Armed Services in 1983. Ansley describes preparing the annual National Defense Authorization bill and recounts serving as the Committee’s Republican staff director, the first woman to hold that position. She offers behind-the-scenes details about Senate passage of the Authorizations for the Use of Military Force for Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Ansley left the Senate in 2005 to serve on President George W. Bush's National Security Council.
Sheila Burke came to the Senate in 1977 to serve as legislative assistant to Kansas senator Robert J. Dole. With a background in nursing and public administration, Burke assisted Dole on matters of public health, later serving as his chief of staff and also as the secretary of the Senate. In many ways, Burke’s career mirrored the Senate’s development—the rise of women to positions of influence and the development of policy expertise within members’ offices.
Capitol Operators connect members’ offices with the constituents they serve. They perform a variety of functions, fielding incoming calls, connecting members’ Washington-based offices with state offices, and handling members’ telephone press conferences and town hall meetings. They also deal with extreme demands on the communications system during moments of national crisis, such as September 11, 2001. In the early years, the operators were all women, and they remain predominantly female today.
Tara DiJulio joined Colorado senator Wayne Allard’s communications staff as deputy press secretary in 2007. During the next decade DiJulio led the communications team for several Republican senators as well as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. DiJulio describes the revolution in communication technologies that occurred during her Senate career, and what it was like to (often) be the only woman in a room of decision makers.
Paulette Desell, Ellen McConnell, and Julie Price challenged the long-standing “boys only” page tradition—and won. On May 13, 1971, they were appointed to serve as the Senate’s first female pages. Their historic appointments opened opportunities for women to serve in a variety of positions previously unavailable to them, such as elevator operators and police officers.
Linda Gustitus spent nearly three decades in the Senate, working primarily on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. She excelled at oversight and led investigations into a broad range of issues, from defense contracting to campaign finance reform. A longtime advisor to Senator Carl Levin, Gustitus served briefly as his chief of staff before her retirement.
Elizabeth Letchworth began her Senate career as a page in the 1970s and moved on to serve in the cloakroom and as floor assistant, positions that placed her at the heart of the action in the Senate Chamber. In 1995 senators elected her Republican Party secretary, the first woman to serve in that position. She retired in 2001.
Christine McCreary worked for more than four decades on Capitol Hill as a secretary in the offices of Senators Stuart Symington and John Glenn. When she arrived at the Senate in 1953, dining facilities in most federal buildings in Washington, D.C., were segregated. McCreary challenged this de facto segregation, dining regularly in the Senate staff cafeteria.
Dorothye Scott joined Senate staff as an administrative assistant to the Democratic Party secretary in 1945. Scott later worked for two secretaries of the Senate, providing support to the Senate’s chief administrative officer. In these positions, Scott worked closely with many of the colorful figures and power brokers of the era, including Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson.
Diane Skvarla began her Senate career in 1979 as an intern in the Office of Senate Curator and worked her way up, eventually becoming Senate curator. As curator, Skvarla helped to professionalize the curatorial staff and oversaw numerous restoration projects in the Senate wing of the Capitol, including the renovation of the Brumidi Corridors.
Ruth Young Watt served as chief clerk on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for more than 30 years. She worked closely with committee chairmen, including Senators Joseph McCarthy, John McClellan, and Henry M. Jackson, to support the committee’s work. Watt played an instrumental role in the historic Army-McCarthy hearings in 1953 and 1954.