May 13, 1971
In 1971 the Senate broke a 150-year-old tradition when it accepted female appointments to the Senate page program. The Senate began hiring boys as pages in the 1820s. Though no Senate rule explicitly prohibited the appointment of women, the practice of appointing male pages persisted.
In the 1960s, senators began to challenge the tradition of “boys only” page appointments. In a 1961 letter to senators, Sergeant at Arms Joseph C. Duke responded by defending the “boys only” policy, citing safety concerns and the physical demands of the job, which included carrying heavy materials, and walking and running all day. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sex, as well as a grassroots movement to end gender discrimination throughout society, prompted some high school-aged girls to apply for Senate page appointments. The pressure to admit female pages continued to build, and in early 1971 the Senate Rules Committee held hearings to consider the issue.
Senators Jacob Javits of New York, Charles Percy of Illinois, and Fred Harris of Oklahoma testified on behalf of three young women they wished to sponsor. Noting that the Senate did not have a rule explicitly prohibiting the appointment of female pages, Senator Javits argued that the issue was a “question of fundamental human fairness.” “I feel that in accepting girl pages to serve in the U.S. Senate,” explained Senator Fred Harris, “we would be taking a symbolic step.” The Senate should “end discriminatory hiring practices based on sex alone,” he urged, to “serve as an example [to] employers at all levels of American industry.”
After long debate and delay, the Senate finally approved a resolution allowing for the appointment of female pages on May 13, 1971. Soon thereafter, Paulette Desell, Ellen McConnell, and Julie Price made Senate history when they were sworn in as the Senate’s first female pages.