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“[There’s] a distinction between those who go as traditional widow and those who are hoping to make their own political career,” Lawless said.
Nolan’s tenure resembled the traditional model, in which the widow isn’t particularly eager for a life in elective office, opting instead to be either a torch carrier for her departed husband or a placeholder for his party.
Before the current generation, other women filling the seats of their deceased husbands had begun to change the expectations. (To date, no widowers have succeeded their late wives in Congress.)
First elected in 1925, Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.) served 35 years in the House, still the longest Congressional tenure for any woman.
(Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, with combined service in the House and Senate, will pass Rogers next month.)
Lindy Boggs served from 1973 to 1991 after the death of her husband, House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-La.). Her time in office was impressive not only for its length but for the power and influence she accumulated in her own right as a member of the Appropriations Committee.
Being politically active in either their own lives or those of their husbands before coming to Congress has helped in the transition from political spouse to long-standing Member.
Boggs “was very involved with the day to day of [her husband’s] office and was very connected to his work,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Matsui had a wealth of political experience before her time in Congress. She had been a staff member for President Bill Clinton and maintained a decades-long relationship with political powerhouses such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
In 1996, when injuries from a car accident caused Rep. Walter Capps (D-Calif.) to leave the campaign trail, his wife, Lois, took to the stump to make his case. He won but then died of a heart attack less than a year into his term. Capps used her experience as a surrogate to win a special election in 1998 and has been re-elected easily since.
“They’re political people. ... They’ve been involved in the political component,” Walsh said.