Politics

Getting Into the Boys Club

Former congresswomen share the feeling of earning a seat at the table

Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill lines up his next shot during a golf outing in 1984. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

It was her golf game that helped Barbara Kennelly break the glass ceiling on the Ways and Means Committee, a boys club until she decided to change that.

“When I was on a trip down to South America, I knew [the committee] had a golf group every morning and I said to [former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill], ‘I’d like to play in that,’ and he said, ‘Fine,’” Kennelly recalled. “I could keep up with them. They all weren’t that great.”

She had to play by the same rules the men did.

“One morning I skipped, and that afternoon Tip said to me, ‘You know, when you say you want to play, we’re putting you in the game and you’ve got to show up,’” Kennelly said.

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Family ties helped — Kennelly’s father, John M. Bailey, was a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

 

“When I was running for Ways and Means, there was a meeting about it because those were important spots. And [O’Neill] said to the group, ‘If she’s half as good as her father, she’s okay,’” she said. 

She continued to make her mark in Congress. Kennelly joined the ranks of House leadership in 1995 when she became the first female vice chairwoman of the Democratic Caucus, 13 years after she came to Congress.

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Mary Bono of California, who served from 1998 to 2013, said no one handed her anything — she had to work for it.

“There are so few women and … to advance somebody just because we need a seat at the table for women, that’s not how we play,” Bono said of her party. “We played by ‘The woman’s going to earn her spot and she’s going to prove her mettle and she’s going to do a great job.’”

“Do I wish we had more [women in leadership]? Actually, do I wish every leader of the House was a woman? Of course. But I want them to earn that spot,” she said. “But the sort of tokenism — ‘I’m going to be the one, let me elbow everybody else out of the way so I can be that one’ — we need to get well beyond that.”

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Bono was the only Republican woman on the House Judiciary Committee, which she joined in 1998 during the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton.

Maryland Democrat Donna Edwards was the only woman in Maryland’s House delegation by the time she retired to run unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2016.

Edwards, who served from 2008 to 2017, was the first African-American woman to represent her state in Congress. She said it was by taking leadership where there were opportunities that earned her a place at the table.

“I gained leadership by doing the hard work of being a member — both paying attention to my committee assignments but also taking leadership within the caucus whether it was through the DCCC or otherwise, and I feel like that, even though at a very early stage in my congressional career, I feel like that was rewarding,” she said.

Former Maryland Republican Connie Morella, who served from 1987 to 2003, noted a moment over 25 years ago when she saw progress in an ironic way.

Off of Statuary Hall is the congressional reading room, where John Quincy Adams died while serving in Congress after his presidency.

The room was named in 1991 for former Louisiana Democratic Rep. Lindy Boggs, the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana after she won a special election to finish her husband Hale Boggs’ term following a plane crash in 1972 that killed him.

Women in the House at the time attended the room dedication. 

“I remember that Lindy looked at the statue of John Quincy Adams, in that room ... and she said, ‘Well, John, your father never listened to what your mother, Abigail, told him to do when she said “Remember the ladies,”’” Morella recalled. “‘But I’m sure she finds some comfort now knowing that you are here in this room, surrounded by strong women.’”

Morella added, “I always remembered that and I thought, ‘Yeah, that is good point about progress.’”

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