The Kate Brown Story
As a Senate employee “in charge of the ladies’ retiring room,” Kate Brown worked hard. Senators noticed her “lady-like character,” and described her as “intelligent” and “refined.” She was not a rebel or a troublemaker, but on a chilly afternoon in 1868 Kate Brown rebelled. Her story is a nearly forgotten chapter of Senate history.
On February 8, 1868, Brown pulled out her ticket and prepared to board a train, to return to Washington from Alexandria, Virginia. As she stepped aboard, she was accosted by the rail line’s private police officer, who angrily told her she must enter the other car. “This car will do,” Brown replied quietly. At that point, as she later told a Senate investigating committee, “the policeman ran up and told me I could not ride in that car ... he said that car was for ladies.” Of course, Kate Brown was a lady, but she was also African American. Read the full Senate Story.
A Vote for Women
On the morning of September 30, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson hoped that his trip to Capitol Hill would change the course of American history. In a 15-minute address to the Senate, he urged members to adopt a constitutional amendment giving American women the right to vote. The House of Representatives had approved the amendment months earlier, but Senate vote counters predicted that without the president’s help, they would miss the required two-thirds majority by two votes.
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First Woman Senator
The governor faced a serious political dilemma. He wanted to run for the U.S. Senate, but his earlier opposition to ratification of the Constitution’s equal suffrage amendment seriously alienated many of his state's women voters. How could he gain their allegiance?
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A Woman Presides over the Senate
On October 19, 1943, for the first time, a woman formally took up the gavel as the Senate's presiding officer. In the absence of the vice president and the president pro tem, the duties of the chair were assigned to Arkansas Senator Hattie Caraway.
The first woman elected to the Senate, Caraway had presided once before. In 1932, she briefly filled in for Vice President Charles Curtis, but there was no official recognition of the event. Caraway noticed, of course. “Made history,” she wrote in her diary. “Nothing came up but oh, the autographs I signed.” Other precedents followed – the first woman to chair a committee in 1933, and the first woman to stand in for the floor leader in 1940. By 1943, Caraway had grown accustomed to breaking the Senate's gender barriers. Read the full Senate Story.
First Woman Elected to Both Houses of Congress
Is the Senate any place for a woman? This question dominated the 1948 U.S. Senate Republican primary in the state of Maine. Contesting for the seat of retiring Senate Majority Leader Wallace White were the current governor, a former governor, and a four-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives named Margaret Chase Smith.
Unlike her wealthy opponents, who enjoyed strong statewide political connections, Margaret Chase Smith initially had neither adequate funding nor name recognition among the two-thirds of Maine's population living outside her congressional district. She also faced deeply ingrained prejudice against women serving in elective office. As the wife of one of her opponents put it, “Why [send] a woman to Washington when you can get a man?” Read the full Senate Story.
A Declaration of Conscience
As Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine boarded the Senate subway, she encountered the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy. “Margaret, you look very serious,” he said. “Are you going to make a speech?” Without hesitation, Smith replied: “Yes, and you will not like it!” The date was June 1, 1950, and Smith was about to deliver the most memorable speech of her long career.
Four months earlier, McCarthy had rocketed to national attention. In a well-publicized speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, he claimed to possess the names of 205 card-carrying communists in the State Department. Smith, like many of her colleagues, shared McCarthy's concerns about communist subversion, but she grew skeptical when he repeatedly ignored her requests for evidence to back-up his accusations. “It was then,” she recalled, “that I began to wonder about the validity... and fairness of Joseph McCarthy’s charges.” Read the full Senate Story.
"Year of the Woman"
The hotly contested 1991 Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas troubled many American women. Televised images of a committee, composed exclusively of white males, sharply questioning an opposing witness—African-American law professor Anita Hill—caused many to wonder where the women senators were.
In 1991, the Senate included two women members, but neither Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas nor Barbara Mikulski of Maryland served on the Judiciary Committee. Watching the hearings on the West Coast, Washington State senate member Patty Murray asked herself, “Who’s saying what I would say if I was there?” Later, at a neighborhood party, as others expressed similar frustrations, Murray spontaneously announced to the group, “You know what? I’m going to run for the Senate.” Read the full Senate Story.