Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who served four terms in the Senate from 1949 to 1973, spent more than half of her Senate tenure as the sole woman senator. Only the seventh woman to serve in the Senate and the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, Smith often confronted uncharted territory for women in the Senate. One such instance involved a special perk for senators—private "senators only" restroom facilities in the Capitol.
Today, access to private restrooms near the Senate Chamber is a privilege that senators take for granted. Margaret Chase Smith did not enjoy that luxury. While her male colleagues used a “senators only” restroom just steps from the Senate Chamber, Smith was forced to dart down a flight of stairs and queue up with tourists to use the women’s public restroom. One wonders if visitors to the Capitol realized that the distinguished woman in the next stall was a U.S. senator.
Reluctant to “rock the boat,” for years Smith quietly endured the inconvenience of sharing a public restroom, but eventually her annoyance at the injustice of the situation prompted her to petition Rules Committee Chairman Carl Hayden for a solution. Although Hayden could not provide a senators-only restroom for women near the Chamber, he gave her a key to a restroom near the Rotunda. “You won’t mind if the Capitol women employees share it with you, will you?” he asked. No, Smith responded, but added, “This is not equal treatment.” She noted that the men in the Senate didn’t share their restroom near the Chamber with other Capitol employees.
Later that afternoon, Smith ran into Senator Owen Brewster, her senior colleague from Maine. He looked rather glum. “What’s wrong?” Smith inquired. Brewster held out a key and explained that it used to fit the lock on a restroom near his private office near the Rotunda. “The lock has been changed,” he complained. “I am looking . . . for the fellow who has priority over me.” Smith realized that Hayden had duped them both by changing a men's restroom for employees to a women's restroom. Smith sympathized with Brewster, a friend and colleague, but she relished the prospect of having access to a non-public restroom. She remained silent and went on her way.1
Smith continued to use this restroom until Chairman Hayden ultimately found a way to fulfill her request for a private, senators-only bathroom. He waived senatorial seniority rules for private offices in the Capitol, known as “hideaways,” in order to provide Smith with a small, windowless room that had been used as storage space. Hayden instructed the Senate sergeant at arms to install a private restroom. Although it was not directly outside the Senate Chamber, Smith finally enjoyed the convenience of her own private facility in the Capitol.2
In 1961 Smith was joined by another woman, Maurine Neuberger of Oregon, who was elected to a full term in 1960. The prospect of two women senators serving simultaneously prompted Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to provide them hideaway space in the newly constructed East Front extension of the Capitol, where they would share a semi-private restroom. Smith's new office, with windows, was larger and more ornate than her previous hideaway, but ultimately, she found the arrangement unsatisfactory. Not only was the restroom quite far from the Senate Chamber, but Smith also noted that Neuberger “had many people coming and going,” taking away any sense of privacy. When Neuberger left the Senate in 1967, Smith took advantage of the situation and had her neighbor’s door to the restroom sealed off.3
Smith retired in 1973, but the women senators who followed faced similar problems. For another two decades, during which the number of women senators never exceeded two, party leaders continued to make temporary arrangements to provide them with restroom facilities. Like Smith, some queued up to use the public restrooms.
The year 1992, coined the “Year of the Woman” by the press, further changed the power structure of the Senate. In November an unprecedented number of women won election to the Senate, tripling their numbers from two to six. The growing presence of women could not be ignored. Before long, Majority Leader George Mitchell announced that women senators “would soon have a restroom of their own next to the men’s [restroom] just off the Senate floor.” “Plumbing and progress,” one female reporter quipped. From now on, no woman senator will “miss an important vote because she was downstairs in line with the girls from a 4-H club.”4
To accommodate the growing number of women senators in the 21st century, the Senate expanded the women's restroom near the Chamber. At long last, the women of the Senate enjoyed the "equal treatment" once sought by Margaret Chase Smith. It may seem like a small accomplishment, but in an institution long governed by men, it was a major achievement. The Senate was growing accustomed to women senators.
Like Smith before them, women senators of the 21st century continue to challenge old assumptions and reshape their working environment. "This place was not built for us," lamented Mary Landrieu of Louisiana about the Capitol. The women of the Senate, like female pioneers in all professions, had to fight to bring physical as well as cultural change to the Capitol Hill environment. Looking ahead, Landrieu added: “I hope the young women never have to even think this way because we want them to know that the Supreme Court was built for them to serve, that spacecraft are built for them to be astronauts…. So maybe this next century, this 21st century, buildings and places of power will feel more comfortable." No doubt, Margaret Chase Smith would have agreed.5
5. "Mary L. Landrieu, U.S. Senator from Louisiana, 1997–2015," Oral History Interview, September 18, 2017, Senate Historical Office, Washington, DC.