The Remarkable Stories of Women in Congress

August 11, 2011

When I was a kid, I would read from an old set of encyclopedias – just randomly, but with a predilection for famous and not-so-famous people. As a result, I still remember at least something about the lives of the Roman-era scholar-king Juba II of Mauretania, the Seneca chief and orator Red Jacket, the World War I field marshal August von Mackensen, and scads of other people.  It’s useless knowledge, I suppose, but it entertains me and is tolerated (mostly) by friends and family members.

Given my fondness for small-scale biographies, a hefty reference work like Women in Congress, 1917-2006 could put me out of action for days. These meticulously researched biographies, including sources for further reading and a photograph of each Senate or House member discussed, are a treasure trove for fans of American politics and history and trivia buffs alike. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress and a life-long pacifist, voted against going to war withGermany in 1917, didn’t get elected again until 1940, and promptly voted her conscience again by opposing the declaration of war againstJapan after Pearl Harbor. Like the others in this book, Rankin was more than just a source for a Jeopardy question – in the 1960s, she was still marching for the causes she held dear.

Although many of those discussed in Women in Congress, especially prior to the 1960s, arrived via the “widow’s mandate” – succeeding their deceased husbands in office – many of them stayed to make significant careers on their own. Take Edith Nourse Rogers, for example. After being elected to her husband’s seat in the House of Representatives, this self-proclaimed “Republican by inheritance and by conviction” served 18 terms, noted for her advocacy on behalf of veterans, steadfast opposition to fascism in Nazi Germany andItaly, and dedicated anticommunism during the Cold War.

After World War II, Helen Gahagan Douglas, a former movie actress, was labeled “The Pink Lady” by an opponent targeting her liberal political views. She, in turn, enriched the language of American politics by dubbing her final opponent, Richard M. Nixon, “Tricky Dick.”

Millicent Fenwick, a fiscally conservative but independent Republican of the 1970s and 1980s, was the inspiration for the Lacey Davenport character in Garry Trudeau’s long-running Doonesbury comic strip)

Okay, I’d better stop or this post will never end. Every one of the entries in Women in Congress is worthy of mention, and I know a lot of you have your own favorites, but I just can’t do it all. Happily, you can browse as much as you want right here, get your own copy, or find it in a library.

Oh, and did you know that King Juba II of Mauretania married Cleopatra’s daughter?


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