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I don’t know how I first discovered that the Senate employed pages. Probably, it was watching Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and seeing kids bustling around the halls of Congress while Jimmy Stewart dramatically demonstrated what a filibuster ought to look like. I must not have noticed that the pages were all boys because, later, as a 13-year-old political junkie, I wrote a letter to my senator, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, asking how I could become a page.
The answer was short and dismissive. Girls could not be pages.
As a teen, it didn’t really occur to me that a female presence wasn’t just lacking among the page population. The number of women sitting in the House and Senate was almost as paltry. There was a total of 10 women representatives throughout the 1960s (and they did not all overlap). Only two female senators served during the decade: Oregon’s Maurine Neuberger, a Democrat, and Republican Margaret Chase Smith of Maine.
When I first thought about writing a book for young people about women in Congress, I originally conceived of it as profiles of “firsts,” starting with Jeannette Rankin, who was elected to the House of Representatives from Montana in 1916—four years before women across the U.S. got the vote. (Montana had given its women the right to vote in 1914.) The book would also include Patsy Mink, the first woman of color to be elected to the House; Shirley Chisholm, the first African American congresswoman; and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first female Hispanic. But as I did my research, I soon realized there were many more fascinating stories about the diverse group of women from around the country who came to serve: why they ran, what they accomplished, and the lasting effect they have had on Congress and the nation.
And as I began to write, I quickly understood that it wasn’t possible to string together profiles without historical context. Richard Nixon defeating Helen Gahagan Douglas, in part because he accused her of being pink down to her underwear, meant nothing if readers didn’t know about the 1950s Red Scare. Without understanding the civil rights movement or the women’s movement, the contributions of a Barbara Jordan or a Bella Abzug would mean little. So information about what was happening in the country had to be included. My book, which was originally contracted for 48 pages, was going to become a lot longer.
Another story I wanted to tell was of the women’s reception in the hallowed halls. Early on, women might not always have been welcomed by their male counterparts, but they were mostly treated politely. By the 1970s, though, when women were demanding their rights instead of asking for them, many congressmen were growing hostile. When Patricia Schroeder was appointed to the Armed Services Committee, the chair made her and an African American, Ron Dellums, share a chair because, he said, “women and blacks were worth only half a member.”
There was one story, however, that affected me personally.
The week before I graduated from high school, my mother died of a heart attack. The salary she earned as a saleswoman was intended to cover my college tuition—thankfully much less in those days. Still, after she died, it seemed college might not be in the cards for me.
Then my family learned that we were entitled to her Social Security benefits. A few years earlier, this would not have been the case. A husband’s Social Security benefits went to his family; a wife’s were simply put back into the general fund.
It took a dedicated congresswoman, Martha Griffiths of Michigan, to push for a bill that would reverse this injustice. In 1962, that bill became law, and because it did, I received my mother’s Social Security benefits and was able to attend the University of Missouri. Learning how much I owed to a congresswoman, whose name I now knew, had a profound effect on me.
The more I wrote, the more I realized that the women who have served in Congress have all made their marks, whether it was on domestic legislation, foreign affairs, or simply by being present, reminding the nation that women make up half the country. As former senator Olympia Snowe says in the introduction to my book, “For too long, women in America had to endure the myth of what—or where—a ‘woman’s place’ should be. . . . A woman’s place is virtually anywhere—including the United States Congress!”
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