Pages of History Expand for Women

Posted March 26, 2007 at 4:50pm

In 1976, when the first edition of “Women in Congress” was published as part of the United States’ bicentennial celebration, the slim volume featuring just 95 female Members numbered a mere 112 pages. [IMGCAP(1)]

On Wednesday, when the House Administration Committee convenes a forum hosted by ABC News’ Cokie Roberts to mark the release of the third edition, the tome will clock in at 1,015 pages.

“There’s been an explosion in the last 20 years and the book reflects that,” said the publication’s editor, Matt Wasniewski, referring to women’s increasingly high-profile role in Congress.

The book, which covers the period from 1917 — the year the first woman elected to Congress, Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R-Mont.), took office — to August 2006, includes 229 women. (Since then, an additional 13 women have been elected to Congress, for a total of 242 women out of the more than 12,000 individuals who have served in Congress.)

Besides adding profiles on the more than 100 women to be elected since the second edition in 1991, the book includes expanded bios on former female Members, contextual essays focusing on the different generations of women to have served in Congress and extensive appendices, touching on everything from committee chairwomen to women of color, said Wasniewski, the manager of historical publications in the House Office of History and Preservation. He added that he hopes the book will serve as a “one-stop resource” for researchers, teachers and students.

Among the trailblazing women featured in the book is Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.), the longest-serving female Member in history, whose tenure spanned from 1925 to 1960. Not only was Rogers, whose picture adorns the book’s cover, instrumental in pushing through major portions of the GI Bill, but she also authored the legislation creating the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II and served two terms as chairwoman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Wasniewski also recalled the effort that some women, such as Rep. Mary Norton (D-N.J.), took to prove themselves “one of the boys.”

“One day very early on in 1925 or 1926 she was on the floor and one of the men addressed her as the lady from New Jersey. She cut him off and said, ‘I’m no lady. I’m a Member of Congress and I’ll proceed on that basis.’”

Other early female Members were more playful about their gender.

The “grandmotherly” Rep. Florence Kahn (R-Calif.), who served from 1925 to 1937 and was the first woman to sit on the House Appropriations and Military Affairs committees — as well as the first Jewish female Member — once was asked by a reporter why she was so successful in getting legislation approved, Wasniewski said. Without missing a beat, Kahn, who was responsible for securing the funding for the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, shot back: “Sex appeal.”

The book, which was authorized by a House concurrent resolution in 2001, is the first of a quartet of books mandated by Congress looking at various minority groups. Already, the Office of History and Preservation has started writing the third edition of “Black Americans in Congress.” It has also begun work on the second edition of “Hispanic Americans in Congress” and the first edition of an entirely new book, “Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Congress.”

“Women in Congress 1917-2006” is available for $59 in hardback. A soft-cover edition is planned for later this spring.