Turning a Page in History

Trio Helped ‘Open the Floodgates’ for Women in Hill Program

Posted February 16, 2007 at 5:07pm

Felda Looper credits her sprinting abilities with getting her out of more than one compromising situation during her time on Capitol Hill.

“I got chased a few times,” she said, declining to name names. “Fortunately I’m able to run faster than old men.”

Looper, who in 1973 was appointed the first female House page by then-Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.), said she wasn’t surprised by revelations last fall that then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) had had sexually charged communications with teenage male pages.

“It was just a matter of time,” she asserted. “There were guys after guys even then.”

Such instances aside, Looper, who also remembers drinking beer with lawmakers at the Hawk ‘n’ Dove, looks back on her pioneering service as one of the highs of her life.

It was the cusp of the women’s movement, after all, and Looper, like the women who had earlier integrated the Senate, Paulette Desell-Lund and Ellen McConnell Blakeman, had helped “open the floodgates” to the legions of young girls who would stream into the page program in the coming years.

With this year’s ascension of former House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Speaker and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) quest to seek the highest office in the land, Roll Call takes a look back at a few other women who helped blaze their own trails in Congress: the first girl pages.

Getting Their Heels in the Door

Looper was only 12 when she first broached the subject of girl pages with then-House Majority Leader Albert at lunch in the Members Dining Room during the summer of 1966.

“I said I was pretty distressed to see there weren’t any female pages,” Looper, who was on vacation with her family at the time, recalled telling the future Speaker. To which she said Albert replied: “It’s just sort of an unspoken rule that we don’t have any … I said, ‘That’s not very fair.’”

Looper returned to her rural hometown of Heavener, Okla., and spent the next “couple of years” writing letters to Albert’s office before finally giving it up for lost. Then, just as she was about to graduate from high school in the spring of 1973, she got a call from Charlie Ward, then-Speaker Albert’s administrative assistant, asking if she wanted to be the first female House page. She did and was sworn in on May 14, 1973. (The daughter of then-Georgia Democratic Rep. Eugene Cox, Gene Cox, served a mere three hours as his personal page on Jan. 3, 1939, but Looper is considered the first official female House page.)

Gender integration had come exactly two years earlier in the Senate, thanks mainly to the initiative of the prominent liberal Republican Sen. Jacob Javits (N.Y.), who in 1965 had appointed the first black Senate page and subsequently pushed the Senate Rules and Administration Committee to consider the matter of girl pages.

Sixteen-year-old Paulette Desell-Lund was eating dinner with her family one evening in the fall of 1970 when her father mentioned seeing a news report on TV that Javits wanted to appoint a female page.

That night Desell-Lund sat in her bedroom in Alexandria, Va., carefully penning a letter to the New York lawmaker. Three drafts later, she was ready to put it in the mail. And within weeks, she was headed to the Russell Senate Office Building for a press conference with Javits to announce her selection.

Around this time, Ellen McConnell Blakeman remembers seeing a notice in her local newspaper that another liberal Republican, Sen. Charles Percy (Ill.), was soliciting applications for a girl page. She applied and was accepted, but she got a rude awakening in January 1971 when she was taken to the office of then-Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Robert Dunphy to be sworn in. “Dunphy said, ‘I can’t do that. There’s never been a girl page before.’”

In the weeks of uncertainty that followed, Blakeman lived in a boarding house for women a few blocks from the Senate office buildings and worked as an aide in Percy’s personal office, while waiting for the issue to be taken up by the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. When it became clear the panel was dragging its feet, she went home to Illinois for a while to catch up on her schoolwork.

In March 1971, the Ad Hoc Subcommittee to Consider the Appointment of Female Pages, which had been created by the Rules Committee, held a hearing on the issue.

Blakeman, who attended with Desell-Lund and their sponsoring Senators, remembers Members raising “a lot of questions about safety” and curfews for the girls but not mentioning anything about the well-being of the boys, some of whom were as young as 14.

Finally on May 13, a resolution passed the Senate by voice vote allowing for girls to be Senate pages, with one caveat: Any Senator appointing girls had to assume full responsibility for their safety outside of the Senate and for their safe transportation between the Capitol and their living quarters. (The resolution also mandated that elevator operators, Capitol police officers and post office employees be appointed irrespective of gender.)

The next day, Desell-Lund and Blakeman were sworn in as pages. Desell-Lund went straight to work in the Senate, while Blakeman returned home to finish her junior year of high school before starting her tenure as a page that June.

Just One of the Boys?
Their appointments catapulted these women into newspapers and magazines across the country. Desell-Lund even appeared on the classic game shows “What’s My Line” and “To Tell the Truth.”

All of the publicity also netted these women both hate and fan mail.

“One guy wrote me and told me what a shame it was that money was being wasted on people like me, taking work away from men,” Looper said.

Once installed as pages, for the most part they weren’t treated any differently than the male pages — they were subject to the same long hours, endless walking and deliveries, and pranks that the boys had endured for years.

“I carried as much as anybody else,” asserted Desell-Lund, though she did remember being banned from the “Marble Room” just behind the Senate chamber, where Senators often napped and read newspapers. Going into the men’s room to fetch Senators was naturally off limits.

And Looper remembered getting a little extra attention from some of the Members.

Then-Rep. Wayne Hays (D-Ohio), who resigned in 1976 due to his involvement in a sex scandal, “stopped by the first or second day I was there and congratulated me,” Looper said. “All the guy pages [went], ‘Wow. He never said that to us.’”

Also of note: Albert’s word choice in describing Looper in correspondence. After appointing Looper a page, Albert sent her mother some pictures of Looper and himself accompanied by a note on official letterhead that read: “I thought you might like to have these extra photographs of your pretty and vivacious daughter.”

These inaugural girl pages mirrored the boys in dress, adopting the dark pants and coats and white shirts that the boys wore. Blakeman even sewed her own uniforms.

And their shoes?

Well, it didn’t take long for the then-18-year-old Looper to realize “all these cute shoes” that she arrived with in Washington, D.C., would have to stay in the closet. “My feet were killing me,” she said, until the wife of an Albert aide bought her a pair of “ugly, but soft leather” shoes that made up in comfort what they lacked in aesthetics.

As for the Members, even some who had initially opposed the idea soon grew accustomed to female pages.

“If there were Senators and I know there were … who did not really want girls, they did not treat us any differently than the boys,” said Desell-Lund. “Sen. [John] Stennis (D-Miss.) … I can almost bet he did not want girl pages. [But] he came up to me after I’d been there two months … and complimented me. He said, ‘I didn’t know if that would work and you’ve always conducted yourself like a young lady and I’m glad you are here.’”

Said Blakeman: “It wasn’t like I had a big feminist agenda. I just wanted to be a page. I didn’t see it as a footnote in history.”

History in Action

But if Blakeman didn’t consider her page stint in the second half of 1971 historic, the events unfolding on the chamber floor at that time certainly were.

There was the bill to renew the draft (during the Vietnam War), which was being filibustered by “use of amendments,” she said, some as trivial as “insert a semicolon after the word instead of a comma.” Given the volume of amendments, “we would have in any day endless numbers of roll calls,” Blakeman said.

Then there was the lead-up to the March 1972 vote on the Equal Rights Amendment, which the House had passed in the fall of 1971.

“As I recall a certain Senator was trying to postpone or delay” action on the measure, Blakeman said. “ [then Senate Majority Leader Mike] Mansfield (D-Mont.) stood up and said, ‘We really need to do this so I can get the ladies off my back.’”

Meanwhile, Looper was inspired by then-Rep. Bella Abzug’s (D-N.Y.) speeches advocating abortion rights, as well as by the excitement of Washington during “the summer of Watergate.”

Life After Congress

As for their post-page lives, none of these female pages went on to political careers.

Looper, who would return to Capitol Hill to work for an Oklahoma Congressman one summer during college, said she grew disillusioned with politics while in graduate school at The George Washington University. She married and lived in Paris for a few years, then returned to Washington and opened an upscale European boutique in Georgetown. She later quit working to have her daughter, Chelsea, then returned to the workplace in the exporting and government contracting fields. Today, Looper, who is divorced and lives in D.C., does quality insurance for a protective services company.

“I haven’t been as inspired to be as active as I should be,” the 52-year-old Looper conceded, though she noted that she’s taken her daughter “to every single one of the pro-choice marches since she was in the stroller.”

Meanwhile, Blakeman, who worked in advertising and public relations in Chicago for years, said her involvement in politics has been mainly limited to the two terms she spent on her local school board in suburban Cook County before being “tragically defeated for a third term.” Otherwise, for years she was a “housewife” raising her two boys, now in their late teens. Blakeman, 52, is back freelancing in public relations.

And Desell-Lund?

After a post-page life that included undergraduate and graduate studies in speech pathology, a stint in Canada and a stay at a L’Arche community (where disabled and able-bodied adults live together as peers) in Syracuse, N.Y., she now resides in a log cabin in North-Central Vermont with her husband and daughter and works as a speech pathologist at an elementary school.

Her life, she insisted, is blissful thanks in part because she discovered early on that “Washington and that environment really was not the pace of life that I wanted to live.”

“I was interested in becoming a page. I was never politically oriented, and I’m not today,” said Desell-Lund, 52. “I’m just about the happiest person I know.”