Heard on the Hill

From 1820 to 2018: The Road to an All-Female Correspondent’s Committee

Women reported on the Senate a century before they served in it

“Ladies in the Senate Chamber — Reading of the President’s Message.” (Courtesy Senate.gov)

Capitol Hill journalists elected the first all-female Standing Committee of Correspondents on Jan. 18.

USA Today’s Deirdre Shesgreen chairs the five-person panel, which will serve through the year’s end.

While the number of women in the Senate reached a record 22 this year, it’s no surprise women in the press are ahead of the curve.

The first female senator was Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia, who served for just a day in 1922. But women first started reporting on the Senate more than a century earlier.

Margaret Bayard Smith

The Old Senate Chamber was used by the legislative body from 1810 to 1859 and included a ladies’ gallery where socialites, wives of senators and occasionally the first lady sat.

Margaret Bayard Smith was the wife of Samuel Harrison Smith, a newspaper publisher who founded the National Intelligencer in Washington in 1800. Starting in 1820, she would sit in the ladies’ gallery and report what she saw in the form of letters sent to her family and friends in Philadelphia. She was present during the Webster-Hayne debates of 1830 and provided color.

Before the Standing Committee of Correspondents was established in 1887, the vice president decided who could sit in the gallery. In Smith’s case, that was Daniel D. Tompkins.

“Our Vice-President was so gallant, that he admitted ladies in the senate chamber and appropriated to them those charming and commodious seats which belonged to foreign ministers and strangers of distinction, but their numbers were so great for some days, that they not only filled these and all other seats, that at last they got literally on the floor, to the no small inconvenience and displeasure of many gentlemen,” Smith wrote in her “Letter to Mrs. Kirkpatrick—Sidney, January 30, 1820,” according to Gaillard Hunt’s “The First Forty Years of Washington Society.”

The first woman to serve on the correspondents’ committee was Elizabeth Craig in 1945, but the first to be seated in the press gallery did so 95 years earlier.

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Jane Swisshelm

Jane Swisshelm, a journalist and abolitionist from Pittsburgh, petitioned Vice President Millard Fillmore for a seat in the gallery in 1850.

“No woman had ever had a place in the Congressional reporter’s gallery. This door I wanted to open to them, [and I] called on Vice-President Fillmore and asked him to assign me a seat in the Senate [reporters’] gallery. He was much surprised and tried to dissuade me. The place would be very unpleasant for a lady, would attract attention, I would not like it; but he gave me the seat. I occupied it one day, greatly to the surprise of the Senators, the reporters, and others on the floor and in the galleries; but felt that the novelty would soon wear off, and that women would work there and win bread without annoyance,” Swisshelm wrote in her 1880 autobiography “Half A Century.”

As a reporter for the New York Tribune, she sat in the gallery during the debates over the Compromise of 1850 but a dispatch for her Pittsburgh paper that included rumors about the private life of Sen. Daniel Webster got her fired from the Tribune and cost her spot in the gallery. 

The second woman offered a seat would come years after, in the late 1860s. 

Emily Briggs

Emily Briggs was a correspondent who wrote color pieces about the Senate as she saw fit.

Here’s how she described a night session in the chamber in March 1870.

“Senatorial abandon takes possession of the hour. A Western Senator perambulates the floor, smoking a cigar, but there are very few ladies in the gallery, and the cigar is daintily fragrant, considering its obnoxious origin,” she wrote in a column, later included in her compilation “The Olivia Letters.”

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