Skip Content
U.S. Flag
  
  

Senate Stories | Women


Subscribe

Welcome to Senate Stories, our new Senate history blog. This blog features stories that reveal the depth and breadth of Senate history from the well-known and notorious to the unusual and whimsical. Presented to enlighten, amuse, and inform, Senate Stories explores the forces, events, and personalities that have shaped the modern Senate.

For more notable moments in Senate history, please visit our Historical Highlights collection.


Sort
Cartoon Depicting the Seating of the First Woman Senator, Rebecca Felton (D-GA), 1922 202211 21Rebecca Felton and One Hundred Years of Women Senators
November 21, 2022
On November 21, 1922, Rebecca Felton of Georgia took the oath of office, becoming the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. Though her legacy has been tarnished by her racism, the significance of this milestone—now 100 years old—remains. Felton’s historic appointment opened the door for other women senators to follow. One hundred years later, 59 women have been elected or appointed to the Senate, and many more women have supported Senate operations as elected officers and staff.
Categories: Senate Firsts | Women

On November 21, 1922, Rebecca Felton of Georgia took the oath of office, becoming the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. Though her legacy has been tarnished by her racism, the significance of this milestone—now 100 years old—remains. Felton’s historic appointment opened the door for other women senators to follow. One hundred years later, 59 women have been elected or appointed to the Senate, and many more women have supported Senate operations as elected officers and staff. Appointed to fill a vacant seat on October 3, 1922, Felton formally took the oath of office in the Senate Chamber on November 21 and served only 24 hours while the Senate was in session. For Felton, that historic day marked the culmination of a lifetime of political activism as a feminist, journalist, and suffragist. Like many of her contemporaries, however, Felton was also a white supremacist whose views on race both reflected and reinforced racial inequality for generations. Her complicated legacy sheds light on both the progressive and the reactionary politics that she influenced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born Rebecca Latimer in 1835, she was the daughter of a wealthy Georgia planter. She married Dr. William Felton in 1853, moving to his home near Cartersville. Although the state of Georgia prohibited women from owning property at that time, as the mistress of her husband’s plantation, Felton managed a household that included 50 enslaved people. In 1860, as Civil War approached, the Feltons initially opposed the secession of Southern states from the Union, but like other white Southerners of their social class, they supported the Confederacy during the war to protect their “ownership of African slaves.” Felton later explained, “All I owned was invested in slaves.” She joined the local Ladies Aid Society to support the Confederate army. A physician and a preacher, William Felton tended Confederate soldiers at a nearby military camp, frequently leaving Rebecca alone to defend their property. Physical assault by marauding soldiers was a common wartime experience for rural women like Felton, and their trauma informed Felton’s political advocacy as she later fought for financial security and protection from sexual violence for all women.1 When the war concluded, the Feltons were emotionally depressed and financially destitute. They lost their farm and livelihood during the war and suffered the loss of two young children to wartime diseases. They founded a school, but politics soon came calling. After a report of the brutal sexual assault of a Black girl in a chain gang, Rebecca petitioned the Georgia state legislature to enhance protections for all female labor convicts—Black and white—and she would fight for prison reform for the remainder of her life. William pursued electoral politics, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Georgia state legislature. Felton participated in all aspects of her husband’s career, serving as his campaign manager and speechwriter, atypical roles for a woman in the 19th century. Political opponents criticized their unusual partnership. “We sincerely trust that the example set by Mrs. Felton will not be followed by southern ladies,” complained the Thomasville Times. “Let the dirty work in politics be confined to men.” By serving as her husband’s partner, and at times as his political surrogate, Felton helped to redefine the “traditional” role of southern white women.2 In the 1880s, Rebecca Felton broadened her activism, joining the temperance movement and emerging as a prominent and dynamic public speaker for the rights of poor, rural white women. A prolific and engaging writer, she co-founded a small newspaper in 1885 and later wrote a semi-weekly column for the Atlanta Journal. By the 1890s, Felton had emerged as a prominent public figure whose rousing speeches drew large crowds and whose columns and letters to the editor were widely distributed and debated nationwide. Felton used her influence to push for progressive policy reforms on behalf of white women and children, including universal public education, prison reform, better employment opportunities for women, and female suffrage.3 Felton’s views on race, however, were far from progressive, and throughout her life she held and perpetuated racist attitudes about African Americans. Decades after the Civil War, she continued to promote the myth of the happy enslaved person. She dehumanized Black men, calling them “debased, lustful brutes.” In her memoirs, published in 1919, Felton acknowledged that white supremacy served as an organizing principle for white southerners during and after the war. “The dread of negro insurrection and social equality with negroes at the ballot box held the Southern whites together in war or peace.” By the 1890s, many former Confederate states had adopted new constitutions to restrict African Americans’ civil rights, particularly voting rights. Prominent political figures, including Felton, inflamed racial tensions by promoting unfounded allegations of Black men assaulting white women. Such allegations fueled the heinous practice of lynching.4 In a widely reported speech in 1897, Felton criticized white men for their indifference to women’s rights and their failure to protect white women from assault, promoting her vision of equality for farm women. In the final moments of the speech, however, she pivoted to reactionary race politics: “As long as your politicians take the colored man into their embrace on election day…so long will lynching prevail.…If it needs lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from the ravening human beasts,” she said, “then I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.” Although the purpose of her speech had been to promote the empowerment of white rural women, in the weeks and months that followed, it was Felton’s virulent support for lynching that was widely reported and used as justification for this barbaric practice.5 Shortly after her husband’s death in 1909, Felton joined the suffrage movement and canvassed the state to promote voting rights for women. Racism played a prominent role here as well, with many leading white suffragists insisting that extending voting rights to white women would help to dilute the voting power of Black men. When Felton testified before the all-male Georgia state legislature in 1914, for example, she asked: “Why can’t [women] help you make the laws the same as they help you run your homes and churches? I do not want to see a negro man walk to the polls and vote … while I myself [cannot].” In 1920 Felton and fellow suffragists celebrated the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended voting rights to many, though not all, women. Her suffrage work enhanced her popularity among newly enfranchised women voters in Georgia and beyond.6 In September 1922, when Georgia senator Thomas Watson died in office, he left a vacancy to be filled by gubernatorial appointment until the upcoming special election. Georgia governor (and former senator) Thomas Hardwick planned to appoint a “place-holder” and then run for that seat himself. Because he had opposed the Nineteenth Amendment, Hardwick feared newly enfranchised women would deny him the coveted Senate seat. On October 3, 1922, hoping to quell their opposition, Hardwick chose 87-year old Rebecca Latimer Felton of Cartersville for the historic appointment. Hardwick ceremonially presented Felton with her appointment at Bartow County Courthouse on October 6. Women packed the courthouse, eager to show their support for the first woman senator. Because the Senate had adjourned sine die until December, and her replacement would be elected on November 7, Hardwick’s action was viewed as a symbolic attempt to gain women’s votes. Though Felton would receive a Senate salary and the administrative support of a secretary, as one newspaper reported, it was “only remotely possible” that she would appear on the Senate floor.7 Not content with a remote possibility, Felton’s allies launched an effort to have her seated in the Senate. Helen Longstreet, the widow of Georgia’s Confederate general James Longstreet, petitioned President Warren G. Harding in person on October 5, requesting that he call a special session before the November election so that Felton could be sworn in. Others followed Longstreet’s lead. “I voice the desire of multitudes of women voters,” explained one prominent suffragist in a letter to Harding, “who will shortly be approaching the polls.” Harding ignored the political pressure for a time, resisting calls for a special session. Meanwhile, on October 17, Governor Hardwick lost the Democratic primary to Judge Walter George, who won the general election on November 7. Felton now had an elected successor, but that didn’t halt the pressure to provide her the opportunity to take a Senate seat. Felton lobbied Harding to call Congress back for a special session as many of her supporters petitioned the president for action. On November 9, the president relented, announcing a special session to begin November 20 to consider several Republican legislative priorities. Attention again turned to Felton. Would she be seated?8 Less than a week before the special session was scheduled to convene, Georgia secretary of state S. G. McLendon, Felton’s political ally, declared that Walter George’s election likely would not be certified before the special session began. The ballots of 14 Georgia counties remained to be counted, he explained, and the state canvassing board had yet to be called to certify those results. According to state law, only the governor had the authority to convene the canvassing board, and Governor Hardwick was vacationing in New York. To resolve the situation, Hardwick returned to Georgia and convened the board, which promptly certified the election results. When the Senate convened on November 20, Senator-elect Walter George would be certified and ready to present his credentials. To many, Felton’s chances of taking the oath of office in an open session seemed to be dwindling.9 Undeterred, Felton personally asked George to delay presenting his credentials to the Senate. “I have no objections to interpose,” George astutely proclaimed at a press conference after their meeting. “The Senate is the exclusive judge of the eligibility of its members.… I will be glad to see the distinction come to [Felton], if the Senate can and will find a way to make this legally possible.” After George’s public announcement, Felton’s goal seemed within reach. She packed her bags and boarded a train to Washington, D.C. Both she and George would be present when the Senate convened for the special session. The Senate would decide her fate.10 On Monday, November 20, Felton arrived at the Senate early, her credentials tucked under her arm. Escorted into the Chamber by former Georgia senator Hoke Smith, she took a seat at an empty desk. Senators surrounded her, extending her a warm welcome. When the Senate convened at noon, it approved a resolution recognizing the death of her predecessor Thomas Watson and then—as was Senate custom—adjourned for the day. The question of Felton taking the oath would have to wait another 24 hours. Felton again arrived early on November 21 and received a raucous ovation from visitors in the galleries as she took a seat at Watson’s vacant desk. After recessing for a joint session, the Senate reconvened, accepted the credentials of two new members, and then turned to deciding Felton’s case. Thomas Walsh of Montana addressed the chair. First describing the law that seemed to prevent Felton from being seated, Walsh then provided precedents in her favor. “I did not like to have it appear, if the lady is sworn in—as I have no doubt she is entitled to be sworn in—that the Senate … extend[ed] so grave a right to her as a favor, or as a mere matter of courtesy, or being moved by a spirit of gallantry,” he said, “but rather that the Senate, being fully advised about it, decided that she was entitled to take the oath.” Without objection, the clerk proceeded to read the certificate as presented by Felton, and Vice President Calvin Coolidge administered the oath of office shortly after noon.11 As a duly sworn senator, Felton answered one roll call and delivered a single speech. "When the women of the country come in and sit with you,” she told her Senate colleagues, “...you will get ability, you will get integrity..., you will get exalted patriotism, and you will get unstinted usefulness." She served for 24 hours before relinquishing the seat to Senator-elect Walter George. A gallery full of women erupted into cheers and applause as Senator Felton bade farewell. “The one message I have for women,” she said, “is that their era has dawned.”12 In fact, women’s time in the Senate had begun to dawn even before Felton’s historic appointment. The Senate had already benefitted from a small but talented group of pioneering female staff, including Leona Wells, who joined the Senate's clerical staff in 1901 and became one of the first women to serve as lead clerk on a committee. By the early 1920s, women held half of the Senate’s committee staff positions. Today, women hold many of the most important and influential posts in the Senate, including secretary of the Senate and sergeant at arms.13 As Felton predicted, however, her historic appointment did pave the way for other trailblazing women senators. Hattie Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman to win election to the Senate in 1932 and subsequently the first to chair a committee. In 1938 Senator Gladys Pyle of South Dakota became the first Republican woman to serve in the Senate. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine took the oath of office in 1949, becoming the first woman to serve in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, having prevailed in the general election of 1992, was the first African American woman senator. In 1995 Barbara Mikulski of Maryland set a milestone by becoming the first woman elected to Democratic Party leadership, and in 2000 Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas achieved that goal for the Republican Party. Other milestones followed. In 2013 Mazie Hirono of Hawaii became the first Asian and Pacific Islander woman to take the oath, while Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first openly gay senator. The first Latina, Catherine Cortez Masto, joined the Senate in 2017. When Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office in 2021, she became the first woman to serve as president of the Senate and the first Asian American and African American to hold that position. On November 5, 2022, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California became the longest serving woman senator, with more than 30 years of Senate service. To date, 59 women have followed the trail blazed by Felton in 1922, with 24 serving in the 117th Congress. While historians continue to reckon with the troubling aspects of Felton’s life and career, her legacy as the first woman senator remains a significant milestone—now 100 years old—in the history of the Senate.
Notes
1. Rebecca Latimer Felton, Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth (Atlanta, GA: Index Printing Co., 1919), 80, 86; Crystal N. Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 7–36. 2. John E. Talmadge, Rebecca Latimer Felton: Nine Stormy Decades (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1960), 79; Feimster, Southern Horrors, 34–35. 3. Talmadge, Rebecca Latimer Felton, 125; LeeAnn Whites, “Rebecca Latimer Felton and the Wife’s Farm: The Class and Racial Politics of Gender Reform,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 76, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 372. 4. Felton, Country Life in Georgia, 87; Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 197, 213; Rebecca Felton to the Editor, Boston Transcript, “Mrs. Felton Not for Lynching,” Atlanta Constitution, August 20, 1897, 4. 5. “Woman Advocates Lynching: Sensational Speech by the Wife of ex-Congressman Felton,” Washington Post, August 14, 1897, 6; Felton, Country Life in Georgia, 87; Feimster, Southern Horrors, 126–28, 133–35. 6. Feimster, Southern Horrors, 200–201. 7. “Commission Given Mrs. W.H. Felton by the Governor,” Atlanta Constitution, October 7, 1922, 3; Talmadge, Rebecca Latimer Felton, 140–42; “Mrs. W.H. Felton Named Senator; Hardwick in Race,” Atlanta Constitution, October 4, 1922, 1. 8. “Ask Special Session to Seat Senator Felton,” Baltimore Sun, October 13, 1922, 1. 9. Talmadge, Rebecca Latimer Felton, 143; “George’s Commission Held Up,” Baltimore Sun, November 16, 1922, 1; “George has time to be Qualified for Senate Seat,” Atlanta Constitution, November 18, 1922; 1. 10. “Judge W. F. George and Mrs. Felton to Confer Today,” Atlanta Constitution, November 17, 1922, 1. 11. “Senate to Decide Today on Seating Woman Senator,” Atlanta Constitution, November 21, 1922, 1; Congressional Record, 67th Cong., 3rd sess., November 21, 1922, 14. 12. Congressional Record, November 22, 1922, 23; “Mrs. Felton to Tax Senate Gallantry,” Baltimore Sun, November 19, 1922, 9. 13. “Women of the Senate,” United States Senate, accessed November 7, 2022, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/People/Women/Women-of-the-Senate.htm
Image: [Robert] Dole  (Cat. no. 11.00129.096) 202206 1Picturing the Senate: The Works of Eleanor Mill and Lily Spandorf
June 1, 2022
In 2018 14 drawings by artist Eleanor Mill, featuring mostly senators and vice presidents, joined an important group of illustrations by the artist Lily Spandorf, expanding the Senate’s holdings of works by women artists. Bolstering the Senate’s extensive collection of works on paper, these illustrations demonstrate how these two women used their artistic talents to memorialize their perspectives on the Senate. Together, these collections showcase key events, buildings, and individuals that helped shape the Senate in the second half of the 20th century.
Categories: Art and Artifacts | Women

I love the humor you can get out of politics.1 So stated Eleanor Mill about her work as a political cartoonist and caricaturist. Fourteen of her drawings, all featuring the Senate, were donated to the Senate in 2018. The gift, which also included 84 works on paper by the artist Aurelius Battaglia, came from the artists’ daughter, Nicola Battaglia, in memory of her parents. Mill’s drawings represent the most recent addition of works by a contemporary woman artist to the Senate Collection. The drawings join an important group of 70 illustrations by the artist Lily Spandorf, expanding the Senate’s holdings of works by women artists. Together, these collections reflect a range of artistic techniques and showcase key events, buildings, and individuals that helped shape the Senate in the second half of the 20th century. Eleanor Mill (1927–2008) was born in Michigan. Her father was an executive at General Motors, and the family relocated with such frequency that by the time she graduated from high school, she had attended 21 schools in 18 states. Eleanor trained at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and married Aurelius Battaglia in 1948, although they would later separate. She enjoyed early success illustrating children’s books. It was not until the middle of her career that Mill found her true calling: political cartooning. The artist reflected on this transformation in an interview she gave to the Hartford Courant in 1988: “I spent a lot of my life doing what other people told me to do, or what other people told me I was good at. I had to get older to realize I could do what I wanted. I love what I’m doing now.” In a second interview in 1992, she discussed how her art served as a form of advocacy: “I’ve always been political, I just never thought I could do anything about it in my work until I got old.” She was well aware how few women artists were creating political art and recalled how an art director at Life magazine once told her agent that “it would be a lot easier for [Mill] if [her] name were Edward.”2 Mill’s principal focus was people, often without dialogue or background, and her use of pen-and-ink was well suited to newspapers. Mill found that televised news could be one source of inspiration: “I also use my VCR to record people so I can draw them. I don’t like to rely too much on photographs. It’s better to see [people] in movement; you get more personality.”3 Mill self-syndicated her drawings through the Mill News Art Syndicate, and her work appeared, sometimes as illustrations for op-eds, in more than 40 national newspapers. Mill sought to connect readers with topical contemporary issues ranging from politics to homelessness. While she hoped that her drawings focusing on social issues might inspire viewers to action, she had a different intention for her political drawings: “Just make them laugh.”4 The Senate’s Eleanor Mill collection consists primarily of political cartoons and caricatures of senators and vice presidents that date from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Many of her caricatures, such as those of Albert A. Gore (D-TN) and Robert J. Dole (R-KS) emphasize certain facial features of her subjects, often for humorous effect. She sometimes departed from caricature to provide a more realistic portrayal, such as in a later drawing of Gore. Other caricatures, such as one referencing Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, include additional detail to anchor the subject in the historical moment. Lily Spandorf (1914–2000), a native of Austria, worked for the Washington Star as a contributing artist from 1960 to 1981, providing artistic interpretations of news subjects such as the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the White House Easter Egg Roll. Her work can be found in museum collections and in the book Lily Spandorf’s Washington Never More (1988), which showcases more than 70 of her paintings of Washington, D.C., neighborhoods and buildings. Spandorf preferred creating her work “on the spot” and often searched for outdoor locations in which to draw or paint.5 In 1961 the Washington Star assigned Spandorf to sketch scenes from the filming of Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent , taking place on location on Capitol Hill. After completing the drawings for her initial assignment, she used her press pass over the next several weeks to continue sketching scenes from the filming. “It was exciting and I loved every bit of it,” she recalled in a 1999 interview. Her work caught Preminger’s attention, and at his request her drawings were displayed at the Washington premiere of the film.6 Spandorf worked in pen-and-ink and gouache (a water-based painting technique) to create these drawings, which include numerous views of the Capitol and the Russell Senate Office Building. In the drawing of the actor Don Murray in the Russell Building corridor and in one featuring a cameraman in the Russell Building stairwell (shown here), Spandorf documents the entire scene to impart as much information to the viewer as possible. The cast and crew are captured in a moment of filming, in backgrounds of bricked archways, grand stairwells, and marble arches. She developed friendships with the people on the set, and that intimacy is reflected in her portraits of individuals, such as that of the actor Charles Laughton. The Advise and Consent drawings chronicle interactions between people and architecture, a hallmark of Spandorf’s work. “I combined the action on both sides of the camera with the setting of the U.S. Capitol and Washington. The images capture the events surrounding this unique filming—the only time the interior of the Capitol has been used as a movie set.” The work was challenging, but rewarding: “When I looked at them after years, I was amazed at myself. How could I do that? Because many times I had to be standing up somewhere in the corner to catch the people, and I got amazing likenesses.”7 The drawings by Eleanor Mill and Lily Spandorf bolster the Senate’s extensive collection of works on paper, which range from the 19th century to the present, and demonstrate how these two women used their artistic talents to memorialize their perspectives on the institution. Selections of drawings by both artists can be found by visiting the Art & Artifacts section of the Senate website.
Notes
1. Tom Condon, “Artist Vents Conscience in Cartoons,” Hartford Courant, October 15, 1988, D-1. 2. Condon, “Artist Vents Conscience”; Steve Kemper, “Eleanor Mill: ‘I see no reason to draw pretty pictures….The good things are not the things you need brought to your attention,’” Hartford Courant, September 20, 1992, 14. 3. Kemper, “Eleanor Mill.” 4. Condon, “Artist Vents Conscience.” 5. David Montgomery, “A Perennial Draw Pictures Washington: ‘On-the-Spot’ Art Preserves City’s Past,” Washington Post, December 28, 1998, B-1. 6. Amy Keller, "'Advise and Consent' Exhibit Features First and Only Hollywood Movie Allowed to Be Filmed in the Capitol," Roll Call, September 30, 1999, 35–36. 7. U.S. Senate Commission on Art, “Senate Unveils Exhibit of Original Artwork from Filming of 1962 Classic Advise and Consent,” press release, July 26, 1999; Keller, "'Advise and Consent' Exhibit."
Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME), Senate Committee Hearing 202203 1Making Room for Women in the Senate
March 1, 2022
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.
Categories: Women | U.S. Capitol Complex

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
Notes
1. Margaret Chase Smith, “Anecdotes: Rest Room for Women Senators,” Margaret Chase Smith Library. 2. Smith, “Anecdotes”; Jack Anderson, “Are Ladies Welcome in the House?” Boston Globe, April 23, 1967, C16. 3. Smith, “Anecdotes.” 4. Anna Quindlen, “A (Rest) Room of One's Own,” New York Times, November 11, 1992, A25. 5. "Mary L. Landrieu, U.S. Senator from Louisiana, 1997–2015," Oral History Interview, September 18, 2017, Senate Historical Office, Washington, D.C.
Mary Jean Simpson 202103 1Breaching a Masculine Precinct: Women Pioneers on Senate Staff
March 1, 2021
By the time the Senate welcomed the first female senator in 1922, women were already playing a groundbreaking role on Senate staff. Women began working on Senate staff, typically in custodial positions, as early as the 1850s, but by the dawn of the 20th century they were assuming increasingly important roles in senators’ offices and committees. These pioneering women challenged gender stereotypes, overcame societal and institutional obstacles, and opened doors for others to follow. Each and every one of them had a hand in shaping the history of the Senate and the nation.
Categories: Women | Officers and Staff

By the time the Senate welcomed the first female senator in 1922, women were already playing a groundbreaking role on Senate staff. Women began working on Senate staff, typically in custodial positions, as early as the 1850s, but by the dawn of the 20th century they were assuming increasingly important roles in senators’ offices and committees. These pioneering women challenged gender stereotypes, overcame societal and institutional obstacles, and opened doors for others to follow. Each and every one of them had a hand in shaping the history of the Senate and the nation. Among the earliest pioneers was Leona Wells, who joined Senate staff in 1901 and remained on the payroll for the next 25 years. Born in Illinois around 1878, Wells moved to Wyoming when she turned 21 (because this young suffragist could cast a vote in Wyoming). There she met Senator Francis E. Warren, whose patronage brought her to Washington, D.C. She served as messenger and assistant clerk to several committees. When Senator Warren became chairman of the Committee on Appropriations in 1911, he assigned to Wells the management of all committee business, although she never gained the official title of clerk—forerunner to today’s chief clerk position. Wells wasn’t the first woman to hold a clerical position for a Senate committee, nor the first to be lead clerk, but she was the first to assume that responsibility for such a powerful committee as Appropriations.1 At the time, Leona Wells was unusual—a well-paid professional woman on Capitol Hill. In fact, she was so unusual that she attracted media attention. Leona Wells “is probably the most envied woman in government service,” reported the Boston Globe in 1911. Not only did she earn a good salary, the Globe noted, but she is “placed in charge of the affairs of a big committee.” Wells scouted new territory for female staff, but one area remained off-limits—the Senate Chamber. When Chairman Warren was on the floor handling committee business, Wells had to wait outside. Male committee clerks freely entered the Chamber, but the Senate was not yet ready to admit a female staffer to its inner sanctum. Instead, as the Globe reported, Wells waited “just outside the swing doors of the senate chamber . . . and kept the door an inch or two ajar that she might hear everything that went on inside.”2 Soon, other women set their own milestones. By 1917 five women served as top clerk on Senate committees, including Jessie L. Simpson, clerk for the Committee on Foreign Relations. Raised in St. Louis, Simpson actively participated in the presidential campaign for Woodrow Wilson in 1912, where she caught the attention of Missouri senator William Stone. Simpson joined the Senate staff that year through Stone’s patronage, serving as messenger and clerk to several committees before joining the staff of the Foreign Relations Committee in 1914. Having served as assistant clerk, Simpson gained the top committee job in 1917 with an annual salary of $3,000. (At that time, senators received a salary of $7,500.) News reporters took note of the accomplishment, but they often commented not on Simpson’s abilities but on her fitness for such a sensitive job. “It’s an old story that a woman can not keep a secret,” commented one, “but here is one who must keep many,” who must “go through what is described as an ordeal for her sex” to keep diplomatic secrets. Despite the attention, Simpson took it in stride. “I can’t see why all this fuss about my being appointed to the clerkship,” she stated. “I’ve been acting clerk for months. It’s merely a question of my appointment being made permanent.” As the committee’s top clerk, the New York Times reported, Simpson took on tremendous responsibilities. “In her hands will be treaties with foreign Governments . . . and much other information of a delicate nature.” Like Leona Wells, Jessie Simpson proved that women in government service could tackle difficult jobs with great skill, but she didn’t stay in the position long. In November of 1917, Simpson relinquished her well-paying Senate job to “do her bit” for the war effort. She became a clerk for the U.S. Department of War in France.3 By this time, a growing number of women were taking jobs in the Senate. As early as 1904, news accounts had noted that some “of the best paid employees of our government are women.” Many came to Washington, D.C., during the First World War to fill jobs held by men who had joined the war effort, while others came seeking employment that would be long-lasting. “Is Washington in danger of being overrun by women?” asked a reporter for the Washington Post in 1917. By the 1920s, women filled a number of top positions in senators’ offices and in committees. In 1922 six Senate committees employed women as principal clerks, and many other women served as assistant clerks. In fact, that year, at least 82 of the Senate’s 154 committee clerks listed in the Congressional Directory—53 percent—were women. Four Senate committees were staffed entirely by women.4 Among those six chief clerks was Mabelle J. Talbert. Hired by Nebraska senator George Norris in 1915, Talbert moved with Norris through several committees. When he became chairman of the Committee on Agriculture in 1921, Talbert signed on as assistant clerk. A year later, she became clerk in charge of all committee operations, including management of investigative hearings into such issues as the meat-packing industry and shipment of “filled” or adulterated milk (declared illegal in 1923). Like a number of other top female staff at the time, Talbert served in dual roles in the Senate, as lead clerk to a committee and as secretary to the committee chairman. Norris once described his secretary as a “trusted lieutenant” who “knew the ground and understood the nature of the opposition forces and weapons.”5 Cora Rubin, in 1922 the clerk for the Education and Labor Committee and also secretary to Idaho senator William Borah, became a well-known figure on Capitol Hill. An Idaho native, Rubin first worked for Borah when he was a lawyer in their home state. When the state legislature elected Borah to the Senate in 1906, Rubin followed him to Washington to serve as his stenographer, then as secretary, and by 1920 also was in charge of a major committee. In her dual capacity, Rubin assumed so much responsibility that the press dubbed her “deputy senator.” One Borah biographer described her as the “Cerberus who guarded the office door.” Regardless of her position and decades of service on Capitol Hill, Rubin still faced persistent institutional barriers, such as Chamber access. As committee clerk she held floor privileges but was wary of exercising them, as she explained, “because of the notoriety that would follow.” Although this has been difficult to document, Rubin most likely overcame that hesitation. “I have promised myself that before I leave here for good,” she told a reporter in 1922, “I am going to walk right in on the floor of the senate when it is in session and watch the grave and reverend senators fall over at such desecration!” It would take many years for the “masculine precinct” of the Senate Chamber, as the New York Times described it in 1929, to be fully breached by women staff.6 Another milestone came in 1926 when Mary Jean Simpson became the Senate’s first female bill clerk. Sponsored by Vermont senator Porter Dale, Simpson was no newcomer to politics and public service. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1913 and became active in politics in her home state of Vermont. She participated in various wartime efforts and served in local and state elective offices. Serving as Senate bill clerk until 1933, Simpson later led Vermont’s emergency relief efforts during the Great Depression, directed the women’s division of the Vermont Works Progress Administration, and then became dean of women at the University of Vermont. Today, that university awards an annual prize in honor of this one-time Senate pioneer, the Mary Jean Simpson Award, to a female student “who best exemplifies the qualities of character, leadership, and scholarship.”7 As the role of women on Senate staff grew, Lola Williams took those trailblazing efforts a step further and made history in 1929. “For the first time,” reported the New York Times, “a woman is serving as secretary to the Vice President.” This long-time secretary to Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas achieved that milestone when Curtis took the oath of office as vice president on March 4, 1929, thereby becoming the constitutional president of the Senate. Curtis enthusiastically extolled Williams’s intelligence and experience, but press coverage of her groundbreaking move focused more on appearance than ability. “Miss Williams has one salient characteristic, essentially feminine,” remarked an Associated Press reporter, “for all her efficiency, she wears clothes well and is good to look upon.” As the vice president’s chief aide, Williams oversaw correspondence between Curtis and President Herbert Hoover and managed all official business while the vice president presided over the Senate. A woman had “never appeared in such an official capacity,” noted the Times.8 Earlene White was also a pioneer, although much of her story remains a puzzle. Born in Mississippi, White began her career as a newspaperwoman in Jackson and then went into public relations. It is unclear what brought White to the nation’s capital, but that move may have coincided with her becoming president of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs in 1937. By that year, she also served as a mail carrier in the Senate, and by the end of that decade news accounts consistently identified her as Senate postmaster. Senate employment records do not assign that title to her; rather, they list her as mail carrier throughout her Senate career. Whether she enjoyed the title of postmaster or not, White was a powerhouse. In addition to her Senate duties, she continued to lead national women’s rights organizations. Advancement of the Equal Rights Amendment and equal opportunities in the workplace became her principal goals. “I ask each of you within sound of my voice,” White proclaimed to a large audience in 1938, “to take a pledge that we will not rest until the women of all the nations enjoy political opportunities. . . . We must think how best to advance women for high political and appointive office.” When White died in 1961, the Washington Post described her as “a fighter for the rights of women” and as the “former postmistress of the Senate.” Was Earlene White the de facto postmaster without a title, just as Leona Wells had been de facto lead clerk of a committee without that title? That remains a mystery, but there is no question that she was one of the Senate’s female pioneers.9 It took much longer for women of color to find their place on the Senate’s professional staff. Although African American women had been Senate employees for a century, not until the 1950s did they likely gain professional positions on committees or in senators’ offices. One of the earliest was Christine McCreary, who joined the staff of Missouri senator William Stuart Symington in 1953. When McCreary came to Capitol Hill, she not only faced lingering resistance to women in top staff positions, but also a racially segregated workplace. In an oral history interview with the Senate Historical Office, McCreary recalled the frightening experience of being among the first to challenge segregation in Senate spaces. “I didn’t know what to expect,” McCreary remembered, “because you see Washington was segregated and you had to deal with that.” Facing segregation in the Senate cafeteria, for example, McCreary courageously demanded to be served, and refused to give up. “I went back the next day, and the next day, until finally they got used to seeing me coming in there.” McCreary remained on Senate staff until 1998.10 For many years, scholars studying Congress paid scant attention to Capitol Hill staff, and those who did assumed that women played little or no role on Senate staff before the Second World War. As research continues, Senate historians are discovering that women held positions of influence, on committee staff and in senators’ offices, early in the 20th century. This important role of the “Women of the Senate” is not a recent phenomenon but a story encompassing more than a century of Senate history.
Notes
1. The title of chief clerk was adopted in 1947, following implementation of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. 2. Annual Report of Charles G. Bennett, Secretary of the Senate, S. Doc. 57-1, 57th Cong., 2nd sess., December 2, 1902; Annual Report of the Secretary of the Senate, S. Doc. 62-954, 62nd Cong., 3rd sess. December 4, 1912; “Is Suffragette Uncle Sam’s Highest Salaried Woman,” Boston Daily Globe, August 6, 1911, SM11; “Is Best-Paid Woman,” Washington Post, May 28, 1911, M1; “Women Who Count,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 24, 1911, J11. 3. Report of the Secretary of the Senate, S. Doc. 65-309, 65th Cong., 3rd sess., December 2, 1918; “Important Post for Woman: Miss Jessie L. Simpson Appointed Clerk to Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” New York Times, January 3, 1917, 10; “First Woman Secretary of Senate Committee,” Boston Daily Globe, January 3, 1917, 11; “Going to the Front,” Los Angeles Times, November 21, 1917, I1; “Drops Honor for War,” New York Times, November 13, 1917, 5; “Pretty Girl Custodian of Important Secrets,” Knoxville Sentinel, February 8, 1917, 9. 4. Congressional Directory, 67th Cong., 2nd sess., December 1921, 232–33; 67th Cong., 4th sess., December 1922, 234–35; “Women Crowding to Washington to Fill Government Jobs of Men Gone to Fight Nation’s Battles,” Washington Post, June 17, 1917, SM4; “Women. Government Employs a Large Number,” Boston Daily Globe, May 22, 1904, 55. 5. Richard Lowitt, George W. Norris: The Persistence of a Progressive, 1913–1933 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971), 273; “A Number of United States Senators Have Women Secretaries,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 10, 1926, C8. 6. Marian C. McKenna, Borah (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 86, 372; Frances L. Garside, “Being Secretary to Busy Senator Big Job,” Hartford Courant, June 4, 1922, B6; “That Women Secretaries Sometimes Are Even More Efficient Than Men,” Washington Post, June 24, 1928, S2. 7. The Mary Jean Simpson archival collection is housed in Special Collections of the University of Vermont Libraries in Burlington, VT; “Grafton ‘Old Home’ Day,” Christian Science Monitor, August 21, 1925, 3; “Miss Mary Jean Simpson to Aid on Women’s Project,” Washington Post, October 4, 1936, M14; “WPA Consultant Accepts Deanship,” August 6, 1937, 3. 8. “Girl to Be Secretary to Vice-President Curtis,” Hartford Courant, February 24, 1929, D11; “Curtis Creates Precedent, Having a Woman Secretary,” New York Times, March 24, 1929, 156. 9. Report of the Secretary of the Senate, S. Doc. 76-136, 76th Cong., 3rd sess., January 11, 1940; “City Club Dinner Party Will Honor Miss White,” Washington Post, August 11, 1935, S7; “Senate Postmistress is Nominated for President of Professional Women’s National Federation,” Washington Post, July 23, 1937, 17; “Earlene White in 2d Address,” Washington Post, August 5, 1938, 15; “Guest Speaker,” Washington Post, September 13, 1938, 20; “Hill B. & P. W. Forms Branch,” Washington Post, August 2, 1939, 13; “Earlene White, Woman Leader,” Washington Post, February 23, 1961, B3; “Colonials Hear Earlene White,” Washington Post, April 18, 1941, 17. 10. "Christine S. McCreary, Staff of Senator Stuart Symington, 1953–1977 and Senator John Glenn, 1977–1998," Oral History Interviews, May 19, 1998, Senate Historical Office, Washington, D.C.
Reenactment of Oath-taking in the Vice President's Office, January 3, 1949 202008 18Women of the Senate
August 18, 2020
On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee state legislature approved the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution by a nail-biting margin of one vote, making Tennessee the necessary 36th state and securing the amendment’s ratification. Two years later, on November 21, 1922, Rebecca Felton of Georgia became the first woman to take the Senate oath of office. To commemorate the Woman Suffrage Centennial, and to acknowledge the service of the first woman senator, we present our new online exhibit Women of the Senate.
Categories: Women | Oral History Project

On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee state legislature approved the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution by a nail-biting margin of one vote. The Volunteer State was the 36th state to approve the amendment, and having met the constitutional requirement of approval by three-quarters of the states, the amendment was ratified. Suffragists across the nation celebrated this long and hard-fought victory. Two years later, 87-year-old Rebecca Felton of Georgia, a Democrat, became the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. Appointed to fill a vacancy, Felton took the oath on November 21, 1922. She gave only one speech in the Senate Chamber, but her brief tenure 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.” Even before Felton took office, women had already left their mark on Senate history. In fact, women have always been a part of the Senate’s story, influencing its members and guiding its actions as petitioners, activists, correspondents, spouses, witnesses, lobbyists, speakers, and most importantly, as staff and then as senators. To commemorate the centennial of the Woman Suffrage Amendment, ratified in 1920, and to acknowledge the service of the first woman senator in 1922, the Senate Historical Office celebrates the evolving role of the Women of the Senate. Since the Senate opened its doors to the public in 1795, women have been a near-constant presence in and around the Chamber. Margaret Bayard Smith was an avid writer of letters who 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. In addition to chronicling Senate debates, women have played pivotal roles in shaping them, such as petitioning to abolish slavery and demanding women’s right to vote, among other issues. Spouses have been active political participants, engaging with elected members and the nation in a variety of ways. During World War I, for example, Senate wives formed a local Red Cross branch to support U.S. troops, rolling bandages and assisting local hospitals. After the war, the Ladies of the Senate expanded their mission to include other charitable work. Today, Senate spouses—including the husbands of women senators—maintain a connection with the Red Cross and pursue a variety of activities, including hosting an annual luncheon for the First Lady. Senate spouses continue to play an important role in the Senate of the modern era, not only as partners in Senate families, but also as active, dynamic, and influential actors in the American political system. By the time Felton took office in 1922, a growing number of pioneering women had assumed top staff positions on committees and in senators’ offices. One of those pioneers, Leona Wells, joined the Senate's clerical staff on January 14, 1901, and remained on the payroll for the next 25 years. Today, women hold many important and influential positions in the Senate. They work for committees and in members’ offices, as elected officers, policymakers, legal counsel, and staff directors. They also support the institution’s daily operations, serving on the Capitol Police force, for example, in Senate dining facilities, in building maintenance, as Senate curators and historians, and in a variety of other positions. Felton’s historic Senate appointment paved the way for other women senators. Hattie Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman to win election to the Senate in 1932. In 1949 Margaret Chase Smith of Maine took the oath of office, becoming the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. In the 21st century, women’s growing influence in politics is seen daily in the Senate Chamber, where a record number of women currently serve as U.S. senators. Fifty-seven women have served in the United States Senate since the first woman took the oath of office in 1922. To capture some of their varied experiences, document the challenges they faced, and record their unique perspectives on social and political issues of the day, Senate historians have conducted oral history interviews with former women senators and staff. Their stories are central to understanding Senate history. They provide a fuller, richer understanding of the evolving role of women in the Senate and their impact on the institution and the country. The Senate Historical Office continues its Women’s Suffrage Centennial series with its new online commemorative exhibit Women of the Senate.
Senators Maurine Neuberger and Margaret Chase Smith, January 5, 1961 202003 9Two Women Take the Oath
March 9, 2020
A long-standing feature of the Senate’s traditional biennial oath-taking ceremony is the escorting of newly elected or reelected senators to the well of the Chamber. In January of 2019, at the beginning of the 116th Congress, a record-breaking 14 women senators took the oath of office. Eight of those women were escorted by another female senator. As the number of women in Congress grows, these symbolically important moments are becoming more commonplace, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, in 1961, the sight of two women taking the oath together caused quite a stir!
Categories: Women

In celebration of Women’s History Month, this Senate Story highlights a historic day in 1961 when—for the first time in Senate history—two women took the oath of office on the same day. One of the Senate’s most enduring traditions is the biennial oath-taking ceremony. A long-standing feature of this ritual is the escorting of newly elected or reelected senators to the well of the Chamber. Marching down the center aisle in pairs, or occasionally in groups of three, current and former senators, traditionally from the same state as the newly elected or reelected senator, then stand by to witness this much-anticipated moment in every Senate career. In January of 2019, at the beginning of the 116th Congress, a record-breaking 14 women senators took the oath of office. Eight of those women were escorted by another female senator. As the number of women in Congress grows, these symbolically important moments are becoming more commonplace, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, in 1961, the sight of two women taking the oath together caused quite a stir! The 1960 election had already set a milestone. For the first time, two women candidates faced off against each other for the same Senate seat. One candidate was the Republican senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith, whose courageous stand against McCarthyism had won her national acclaim and placed her on the list of America’s most admired women. First elected to the Senate in 1948, Smith was reelected in 1954, and in 1960 she was seeking a third term. Political observers predicted an easy win for Smith, but the Democrats had a plan for victory. Their carefully chosen candidate was state representative Lucia Cormier. The only way to beat Smith, the Democrats insisted, was with another woman. The Smith-Cormier contest quickly gained national attention. Despite the many accomplishments of both women, the press often reported the campaign in sexist terms. It was a contest of “widow vs. spinster,” declared the Los Angeles Times. We expect to see “a real fur-flying political cat fight,” predicted the Washington Post, between “a scrappy ex-school teacher” and “the snowy-maned, frosty-mannered Republican ‘queen bee.’” The campaign heated up even more in February of 1960 when Maine’s junior senator, Edmund Muskie, personally championed Cormier’s campaign. Muskie even went so far as to escort the Democratic candidate to the Senate Chamber. He introduced Cormier as “the next senator from Maine” and urged her to take a seat at one of the historic desks. This was a clear breach of Senate etiquette and something that Senator Smith did not forget. Margaret Chase Smith won the election (and another in 1966). There were no post-election hard feelings between Smith and Cormier, who had been friends and colleagues for years, but as Smith returned to Washington to take the oath for a third time, she was none too pleased with Ed Muskie. Less publicized but equally important, another woman made Senate history that year. On November 8, 1960, Democrat Maurine Neuberger was elected as the first (and to date, only) woman senator from the state of Oregon. A teacher, writer, photographer, and activist for consumer rights, Neuberger had served in the Oregon state legislature in the 1950s but came to Washington, D.C., when her husband, Richard, was elected to the U.S. Senate. They quickly became a high-profile Washington “power couple.” When Richard died in 1960, Maurine Neuberger ran for election to his seat, winning both a special election to fill out the remainder of his term and a general election to the full six-year term beginning in 1961. For the first time in Senate history, two women were elected to a full term in the same election and would take the oath of office on the same day. “The gap between the two parties, the distance between Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon, will be bridged” by two women, promised a reporter. As the opening day of the 87th Congress arrived in January of 1961, the press paid a good deal of attention to the two women senators. Margaret Chase Smith, who for much of her career had been the only female senator, welcomed the company of another woman. Smith was also an astute politician. She understood that the oath-taking ceremony provided a perfect opportunity for a display of female solidarity in the Senate. It also provided an opportunity for some political payback. On January 3, 1961, when Margaret Chase Smith entered the Chamber to take the oath of office, she ignored Senate tradition. In a rebuke of her Maine colleague, she walked into the Chamber arm in arm with Maurine Neuberger. The two women got a standing ovation, women in politics got a hefty boost, and Margaret Chase Smith got even with Edmund Muskie.
TimePetition to the Senate for a Suffrage Amendment, 1918 202004 2Discovering the Role of the Senate in Women’s Fight for the Vote
April 2, 2020
Congress Week—celebrated each April to commemorate the week in 1789 when the House of Representatives and the Senate first achieved a quorum—was established to promote the study of Congress and to encourage a wider appreciation of the vital role of the legislative branch in our representative democracy. This year, in recognition of the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, we celebrate Congress Week by exploring how Senate historians used congressional collections to develop the online feature, “The Senate and Women’s Fight for the Vote.”

Congress Week—celebrated each April to commemorate the week in 1789 when the House of Representatives and the Senate first achieved a quorum—was established to promote the study of Congress and to encourage a wider appreciation of the vital role of the legislative branch in our representative democracy. This year, in recognition of the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, we celebrate Congress Week by exploring how Senate historians used congressional collections to develop the online feature, “The Senate and Women’s Fight for the Vote.” Formally proposed in the Senate for the first time in 1878, the Nineteenth Amendment was finally approved by the Senate 41 years later, on June 4, 1919. Ratified the following year, the amendment extended to women the right to vote. To tell the story of the suffragists’ protracted campaign to win that right, Senate historians delved into a variety of primary sources, including petitions, congressional hearings and reports, and the personal papers of U.S. senators. Records of Congress The Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives (where congressional records are stored) houses a vast collection of woman suffrage records. The bulk of these records consists of petitions created by tens of thousands of suffragists who exercised their First Amendment right. Their petitions come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are as brief as a telegram, while others include hundreds of signatures pasted or stitched together and rolled up in large bundles. Senate historians combed through scores of petitions to understand not only the suffragists and their demands but also those who opposed woman suffrage. Senate historians also consulted speeches printed in the Congressional Record and committee hearing transcripts and reports to understand senators’ evolving attitudes toward woman suffrage. When California senator Aaron Sargent introduced the woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution in 1878, the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections agreed to allow women to testify in support of the amendment. After hearing from witnesses, including suffrage pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Reverend Olympia Brown, the committee’s majority remained unconvinced and recommended that Sargent’s proposal be “indefinitely postponed.” A few senators voiced their dissent. “The American people must extend the right of Suffrage to Woman or abandon the idea that Suffrage is a birthright,” concluded Senators George Hoar (R-MA), John H. Mitchell (R-OR), and Angus Cameron (R-WI). In 1913, following a historic suffrage parade in the nation’s capital, a Senate subcommittee investigated the chaotic and hostile conditions endured by suffragists along the parade route. The voluminous testimony and photographs published in these hearing volumes provide compelling evidence of lewd comments, physical assaults, and intimidation, as well as the volatility of the massive crowds of people that converged along the parade route. In the wake of these dramatic hearings, the committee concluded that the police had acted with “apparent indifference and in this way encouraged the crowd to press in upon the parade.” Senators’ Papers To delve deeper into this rich and engaging story, the historians also ventured outside the Senate’s official holdings at the National Archives to explore the personal papers of individual senators and suffragists, as well as the records of suffrage organizations housed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Correspondence between senators and their constituents often revealed the motivation behind a senator’s decision to support or oppose the amendment. Idaho senator William Borah, for example, who opposed the national suffrage amendment, insisting it was an issue best left to the states, justified his opposition to the amendment in letters to concerned constituents. “I am aware . . . [my position] will lead to much criticism among friends at home,” he wrote. “I would rather give up the office,” he continued, “[than] cast a vote . . . I do not believe in.” Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette succinctly explained his support for the proposal in a letter to Anne Fitzhugh Miller: “A government of equal rights cannot justly deny women the right of suffrage. It will surely come.” Like the petitions in the National Archives, such letters offer a palpable sense of the engagement of citizens with their senators. Organizational Archives and Other Primary Sources Senate historians reviewed archival materials housed at the National Woman’s Party (NWP) at the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, including materials related to the organization’s complex lobbying operation and a political cartoon collection by artist Nina Allender. Many of Allender’s cartoons prominently featured the Senate. A deep dive into the extensive photographic collection at the Library of Congress turned up a host of illuminating images to illustrate suffrage campaign activities at the Capitol and the Senate Office Building, as suffragists assembled to deliver their petitions and to demand the right to vote. An exhaustive review of historical newspapers and periodicals revealed personal testimonials and editorials. Particularly informative was the series of articles written by suffragist Maud Younger and published in McCall’s magazine in 1919, just after congressional passage of the amendment. Entitled “Revelations of a Woman Lobbyist,” Younger’s intimate account provides an insider’s view of the extensive lobbying campaign suffragists waged to win House and Senate approval of the Nineteenth Amendment. Primary sources such as photos, petitions, speeches, published hearings, correspondence, historical newspapers, and periodicals are all essential to the historian’s work. Our special feature, “The Senate and Women’s Fight for the Vote,” which drew upon all of those resources and more, demonstrates the value and importance of congressional archives. Without these records, the important role played by suffragists and their allies in the Senate’s long battle over the suffrage amendment would be lost or forgotten.