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History of Women in Congress

Milestones from 1917-2012 as Women Broke Through Congressional Glass Ceiling

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History of Women in Congress

Jeannette Rankin, first woman elected to Congress

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Updated January 15, 2013
While the idea of women serving in Congress is no longer revolutionary as fully 20% of today's U.S. Senate is female, the history of women in Congress remains lackluster according to the Congressional Research Service report "Women in the United States Congress: 1917-2012." Although the United States is 237 years old, women have served in Congress for less than half the nation's history -- only 96 years -- and up through the beginning of the 112th Congress, just 2.2% of all members of Congress past and present have been women.

Statistics on Congressional Service
As of November 2012 a total of 278 women have served in Congress, with Democratic women serving at nearly twice the rates of Republican women (178 D, 100 R). At the beginning of the 112th Congress, 16.6% of its voting members were women.

Out of the 278 women who have served in Congress:

  • 86% have served only in the House of Representatives (153 D, 86 R)
  • 11% have served only in the Senate (19 D, 12 R)
  • 3% have served in both houses (6 D, 2 R).
Included in the above figures are one non-voting Delegate each from Guam, Hawaii, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Longest Serving Women in Congress
The record for length of service in Congress for a woman is currently shared by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) who is still going strong after 35 years (25 spent in the Senate and 10 in the House) and Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Massachusetts), who served in the House for 35 years. Mikulski is expected to break Rogers' record when she completes her 36th year on March 17, 2013.

Women in the House of Representatives
A total of 247 women have served in the House of Representatives. Of that number, 239 women have served only in the House (153 D, 86 R) while 8 women ( 6 D, 2 R) have also served in the Senate.

The first woman elected to Congress was Representative Jeannette Rankin (R-Montana, 1917-1919, 1941-1943).

She was the first woman elected to a national legislature in any western democracy and served in Congress well before the 19th Amendment (granting women the right to vote) was signed into law in August 1920.

The longest-serving woman in the House was Edith Nourse Rogers (see above).

Women in the Senate
A total of 39 women have served in the Senate. Of that number, 31 (19 D, 12 R) have served only in the Senate, while 8 (6 D, 2 R) have served in both houses.

The first woman to serve in the Senate was Rebecca Latimer Felton (D-Georgia) in 1922. Appointed to fill the unexpired term of a senator, she held the seat for just one day and was the oldest person to begin serving in the Senate at age 87.

The first woman elected to a full six-year Senate term was Hattie Caraway (D-Arkansas), who was first appointed to fill the Senate seat made vacant by the death of her husband, Senator Thaddeus H. Caraway, in 1931. After finishing out his term, she was elected to two six-year terms of her own and served from 1931-1945.

The first woman elected to the Senate on her own merits (not a widow of a Senator nor previously appointed to fill out a term) was Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine). However, Smith first served in the House after being elected to serve out her husband's remaining House term after his death in 1940. After nearly 9 years in the House, she was elected to the Senate in 1948 and began her service there in January 1949. At the time she left the Senate in January 1973, she held the record for longest Senate service by a woman. (Chase was also the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency by a major political party.)

Of the 39 women who served in the Senate, 19 began their Senate career filling unexpired terms; 14 were first appointed and 5 were first elected to those seats.

For those who were appointed, the majority followed a path common to female political trailblazers around the globe; they stepped in to fill the shoes of a spouse or father. Nine women were appointed to the Senate when their husbands' deaths created a vacancy, and one was chosen to complete the term of her father who resigned his seat. Of these 10, 3 were elected to additional terms.

The remaining 20 women who served in the Senate won their seats during the general election.

Source:
Manning, Jennifer E. and Colleen J. Shogan. "Women in the United States Congress: 1917-2012." Congressional Research Service. 26 November 2012.

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