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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.


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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.
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.
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.