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Former Rep. Cardiss Collins, D-Ill., the first African-American woman to represent Illinois and who spent much of her 12 terms on Capitol Hill fighting for racial and gender equity, died over the weekend due to natural causes, according to her successor, Democratic Rep. Danny K. Davis. She was 81.
Collins was first elected to Congress in a June 1973 special election after her husband, George W. Collins, died in a plane crash shortly after he was re-elected to a second term in 1972.
With the help of the late Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s political machine — which had helped her late husband rise through Chicago’s political ranks — Collins won the special election with 92 percent of the vote.
For the next 24 years she spent in Congress, Collins dedicated her time to making life better for the predominately African-American community she represented on Chicago’s West Side through her role on the Energy and Commerce Committee.
She pushed for expanded health care coverage for women and lower-income Americans and introduced the law that designates October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Collins also worked to fight against insurance companies who engaged in “redlining” — the practice of refusing to sell insurance policies in certain geographic areas — and sought to punish companies that did not follow affirmative action in hiring processes.
She railed against the NCAA, both for gender equity issues as well as potential racial bias in increasing academic standards for college athletes, which she said would be more detrimental to black athletes than to white ones.
Her work to increase opportunity for women in college sports earned her a spot in the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.
Collins was born Sept. 24, 1931, in St. Louis and moved to Chicago to live with her grandmother after graduating from high school. She worked as a stenographer at a carnival equipment company and attended night classes at Northwestern University, where she graduated with a degree in accounting in 1967.
She worked as an auditor at the Illinois Department of Revenue until she was elected to Congress following her husband’s death.
Although she tackled tough issues and held high-ranking roles in Congress — including a stint as chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus from 1979-1981 — she conducted her business quietly, rarely speaking on the House floor.
Her close political ties to Daley made the majority of her elections easy. Once Daley died and his clout faded as the 1980s wore on, Collins was forced to ward off tough primary challenges, most notably against Davis, who eventually succeeded her after her retirement in 1997.
In a statement announcing her death, Davis praised Collins’ work.
“Cardiss Collins was a serious advocate for women and working people,” Davis said in the statement. “We appreciate her service and mourn her death.”