Editor's Introduction  

Women Transforming Congress:
Gender Analyses of Institutional Life

Cindy Simon Rosenthal

This issue of Extensions features highlights from the first-ever national research conference focusing exclusively on women and the U.S. Congress. The symposium was convened and hosted April 14 and 15, 2000, by The Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center on the University of Oklahoma campus. The conference exemplifies the Center's commitment to professional scholarly research to further our understanding and appreciation of the quality of representation and the challenges of representative democracy as embodied in the United States Congress. 

Entitled Women Transforming Congress: Gender Analyses of Institutional Life, the conference forged new ground with respect to congressional scholarship. More than fifty congressional and gender scholars from around the country engaged in a stimulating and enterprising series of discussions to assess the impact of women on the U.S. Congress as a governing institution as well as the state of research on women and the institution. A substantial body of research focuses on women's roles in state legislatures; however, much less research has used gender as an analytic lens to understand the U. S. Congress and the impact of gender on the practice of politics. Indeed, much of the "mainstream" congressional scholarship has failed to acknowledge the insights that gender analyses bring to our considerations of the institution. 

The conference featured presentations of research by twenty scholars who are furthering our understanding of congressional policymaking and examining the role of gender in the institution. Five congressional scholars led the panel discussions, and ten graduate students made poster presentations illustrating new work in progress. Broadly construed, these gender analyses explored the role of women and their experiences on the campaign trail, in congressional committees, on congressional staffs, in leadership, and in interest groups. The central question motivating the conference was: Are women transforming the institution or simply adapting to its norms and rigors?

Happily, we can report that the conference stimulated an enthusiasm and intellectual synergy that surpassed our greatest expectations. In large part, the success of the conference must be credited to the many participants who committed their time, energy, and interest to the discussions, and to the hard work of Center staff, particularly conference coordinator Julie Raadschelders. 

In addition to the perspective of scholars, the conference brought together five women who served in the U.S. Congress over the past four decades. This combination of personal reflections and scholarly research provided for rich and wide-ranging discussions that would be hard to duplicate. The more intimate perspectives of life on Capitol Hill are featured as the lead article in this issue of Extensions. The Center was privileged to host these remarkable women whose accomplishments are substantial and diverse. 

Among the participants in the roundtable was Susan Molinari (R-N.Y., 1990-1997) who also gave the conference keynote address that is excerpted in this issue. Molinari was elected by her colleagues to the eight-person Republican majority leadership team in 1994, making her the highest ranking woman in Congress. She also enjoyed the distinction of serving as 1996 keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention in San Diego. During her congressional career, she championed tougher sanctions on repeat rapists and child molesters, adoption reforms, and increased funding for the Violence Against Women Act and for breast cancer awareness and research. Congresswoman Molinari was a member of the House Budget Committee, and she chaired the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee. She was actively engaged in human rights and other international issues, chairing the Balkans Crisis Task Force and leading three delegations to that war-torn area beginning in 1992. Retiring to devote more time to her family, she currently heads her own government affairs and strategic communications firm and consults with Fleishman-Hillard, a global public relations firm. 

Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.) was elected in 1973 and continued to represent the seventh district in Chicago for twenty-four years, a record of tenure that makes her the longest serving African-American woman in the U.S. Congress. Congresswoman Collins attained prominent positions on a number of House Committees, including House Government Reform and Oversight (ranking Democrat); House Energy and Commerce (Chairwoman of the Commerce, Consumer Protection and Competitiveness Subcommittee); and Government Operations (Chairwoman of the Transportation and the Manpower and Housing Subcommittees). She was the Democratic whip-at-large for the 103rd Congress and the assistant regional Democratic whip for the 104th Congress. She also served as chairwoman, secretary and treasurer of the Congressional Black Caucus. A diligent advocate for children, women and minorities, she successfully sponsored legislation requiring safety warnings on toys and requiring college athletic departments to disclose how they divide financial resources between their men's and women's athletics. She is currently a faculty fellow in the College of Urban Policy and Public Affairs at the University of Chicago.

Margaret Heckler (R-Mass., 1967-1983) defeated eighty-one-year-old Joseph Martin in the 1966 Republican primary by promising vigorous representation, which she delivered for the next sixteen years. She served on a number of committees, including Government Operations, Banking, Agriculture, Science and Technology, and Veterans Affairs and was an ardent supporter of help for Viet Nam veterans, day care for children, and women's rights. She fought for the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, successfully extended the deadline for ratification by the states in 1977, and authored the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 to guarantee women equal rights when applying for loans, mortgages or credit. With Representative Elizabeth Holtzman (D-N.Y.), she organized and initially co-chaired the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues in 1977, later serving as co-chair with Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.). In 1983, President Reagan appointed Congresswoman Heckler as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, where she established new guidelines for the Social Security disability program and campaigned to increase federal funding for patients with Alzheimer's Disease and AIDS. In December 1985, Margaret Heckler was named Ambassador to Ireland, where she served until 1989.

Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn., 1982-1999) served as secretary of the state of Connecticut prior to being elected in a special election to Congress in 1982. During her seventeen-year congressional career, she achieved numerous firsts: the first woman to serve on the House Committee on Intelligence and to chair one of its subcommittees, and first woman to serve as chief majority whip. She is only the third woman in history to serve on the 200- year-old House Ways and Means Committee. During the 105th Congress, she was the ranking member of Subcommittee on Social Security, which oversees the largest single government program in the United States. Congresswoman Kennelly secured the passage of her plan to reduce the vesting period for pension plans to five years - making millions of additional workers eligible for pensions. She successfully sponsored legislation to allow the terminally ill to collect life insurance benefits early and tax free. A longtime advocate for children, Congresswoman Kennelly worked to improve the collection of child support payments across state lines; to strengthen child protection programs, foster care, and adoption assistance; health care for children; and to expand the earned income tax credit. In February 1999, she was appointed to the position of Counselor at the Social Security Administration.

The 1983 election marked a milestone as Barbara Vucanovich (R-Nev., 1983-1997) became the first woman elected to a federal office from Nevada. She was no stranger to Republican politics, having worked for twenty years as grass-roots organizer and constituent-service specialist for U. S. Senator Paul Laxalt. Congresswoman Vucanovich served seven terms and later became the first Nevadan to be elected to a leadership position in the U.S. House of Representatives when in the 104th Congress she was chosen by her colleagues as Republican Conference secretary. She served as chair of the Military Construction Appropriations Subcommittee and was unwavering in her concern with improving the quality of life for military personnel and their families. She was vice-chair of the Appropriations on Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and Independent Agencies. She served as ranking Republican of the Subcommittee on General Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs and of the Subcommittee on Accounts of the Committee on House Administration. In the 104th Congress, Congresswoman Vucanovich sponsored the Family Reinforcement Act, a proposal to strengthen child support enforcement, provide tax credits for adoption and elder care, and impose tougher sentences for crimes against children. She is a businesswoman and a trustee on the Fund Board of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Justices.

In addition to the reflections of these remarkable congresswomen, this issue of Extensions features two other perspectives on women and Congress. Carolyn Hanneman, the Center's archivist, describes her year-long search for photos documenting the history of women and the U.S. Congress. Almost 100 photos were assembled in a display for the conference. A selection of these photos can be viewed at the conference Internet site, http://www.ou.edu/special/albertctr/wtc/.

Finally, we conclude our issue with an intriguing look at congressional life from the perspective of women who worked in members' offices during the first half of the twentieth century. Written by two of the Center's undergraduate fellows, Bryan Pepper and Misty Wetmore, this article draws on the resources of the Carl Albert Center Congressional Archives to document the contributions of these unheralded women.

With this issue, we conclude a memorable and intellectually exciting year that moves our understanding of the role of women in the U.S. Congress ahead in many ways. Edited versions of the conference research papers will comprise a scholarly book scheduled for release in 2001. That publication will signal a conclusion in one sense. In addition, a second conference is scheduled for March 5-7, 2001, at which we will extend the discussion of women in legislatures to an international focus. It is our hope and belief that the scholarly synergy generated by the conference participants will continue in the future to focus on the important contributions of women in Congress and in legislative institutions around the world.


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