Hillary Clinton is hoping to shatter an enormous glass ceiling on Tuesday by being elected to the Oval Office, but today’s story looks across the reflecting pool to Capitol Hill. One hundred years ago today, Montana’s Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
That was even before all American women were given the right to vote by the 19th Amendment, which was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920.*
We’ve come a long way since then.
Indiana has had seven women in Congress, including two Republican women first elected in 2012 who are still serving in the House, hoping to be re-elected on Tuesday.
U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks, whose husband David is a Hammond High School graduate, is vice chair of the congressional women’s caucus and will become co-chair if re-elected. Brooks, a Republican, represents Indiana’s 5th Congressional District.
U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, a fellow Republican, represents the 2nd Congressional District, which includes much of LaPorte County.
They’re the only two congresswomen from Indiana currently serving in Congress, but they’re not alone on Capitol Hill.
Walorski remembers when she, Brooks and the third female Republican elected to Congress that year showed up for the freshmen class photo on Capitol Hill. There were 30-some Democratic women who asked them where the rest of their group was. When the Democrats realized there were only three Republican women, they gave the GOP members hugs and welcomed them, literally, with open arms.
Since then, the women have been working together on a number of issues of common concern where bipartisan cooperation is feasible, Brooks and Walorski said.
A number of the congresswomen live in the same apartment building, Walorski said, and they often meet in the lobby and elsewhere and talk about finding ways to work together to get things done.
Women have a common bond and reach to their “sisters” across the aisle to get things done, she said.
“The women in Congress I think do play an incredibly important role,” Brooks said. The bipartisan women’s caucus plans to work together on issues like child care, women’s health and children’s health and welfare, “and raise up some issues that men might not,” Brooks said.
“What I’ve seen out of Congress, the women often check their egos at the door,” she said. “They often really roll up their sleeves and find ways to work within not only our own parties, but I have really seen the women work across the aisle to find solutions.”
Women are good listeners, consensus builders and problem solvers, Brooks said.
For Indiana, that’s a tradition that dates back to 1933.
Indiana’s first congresswoman
Virginia Jenckes, a Democrat, served 1933-1939. To win election, she had to defeat two incumbents who were in the same district following reapportionment. The farm widow’s campaign strategy was simply to abolish Prohibition, her official House biography said. “Get rid of Prohibition and you will have a market for your corn,” she told farmers in her district.
Jenckes campaigned hard, logging 15,000 miles in a campaign that took her throughout the district in 1932.
She was able to help abolish Prohibition, and she was also able to secure funding for Wabash River flood control projects, but she wasn’t appointed to the committees that would have matched her interests. Instead, she served on Mines and Mining, Civil Service and the District of Columbia.
She was a fierce anti-communist, her biography said, and pushed legislation to outlaw the mere mention of communism in public schools in the District of Columbia. She pushed for American flags to be flown atop every federal building, too.
Cecil Harden, the second Hoosier woman elected to the House, was a Republican. She served from 1949 to 1959. She won her first election by just 483 votes.
Harden joined with Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and Rep. Frances Bolton of Ohio to criticize male dominance of the Republican Party and push for women’s issues to be included in future platforms.
“Harden believed women had an important part to play in politics, particularly in local organizations and volunteer groups, which would provide the kind of experience they needed to move into higher offices,” her House biography said.
Walorski and Brooks have taken up that charge. They are each working to encourage more women to become politically active.
Neither Brooks nor Walorski grew up in a political family, and neither planned to run for office. They were recruited. That’s a common theme for women in public office.
“Many women are asked to run for office rather than just raising their hands and saying I’m going to run,” Brooks said. “I think we need to do a better job encouraging more women to run, and I spend a lot of time doing that.”
Walorski said she is humbled and excited when mothers tell her that their daughters look up to her as a role model.
In the half century between Murray’s term and Brooks and Walorski, three female Democrats from Indiana served in the House.
Katie Hall, a Democrat from Gary, served the 1st Congressional District from 1981 to 1985. Her claim to fame in the House was authoring legislation to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday.
After she left the House, she became Gary city clerk and was convicted on public corruption charges in 2003. She died in 2012.
Jill Long Thompson, who represented Indiana’s 4th Congressional District near Fort Wayne, has deep roots in Northwest Indiana. She is a graduate of Valparaiso University and was a faculty member there when she served on the Valparaiso City Council. In addition to serving in the House from 1989 to 1995, she ran unsuccessfully for governor against Mitch Daniels in 2008. Long Thompson was named undersecretary in the Agriculture Department by President Barack Obama and became chairman and CEO of the Farm Credit Administration until her term ended in 2015. She now teaches ethics at the Kelley School of Business and the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington.
The late Julia Carson, whose grandson Andre Carson now holds that office in the House, was elected to the House in 1996. Carson grew up poor, working part-time jobs like waiting tables, delivering newspapers and harvesting crops, her biography said.
She succeeded her mentor, Rep. Andy Jacobs, upon his retirement after 15 terms in office and represented greater Indianapolis.
Among her legislative claims to fame is authoring a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to civil rights activist Rosa Parks, whose refusal to move to the back of the bus in 1955 was a key moment in the civil rights movement.
She was still a congresswoman when she died in 2007.
Long Thompson said her college students today don’t realize how difficult it was for women even 20 years ago.
While on the Agriculture Committee, Long Thompson got a law changed to give widows the same rights as widowers in the federal egg program. Prior to that change, women whose husbands died weren’t allowed to continue egg production at the same level as before.
Another gender barrier broken.
“We’ve come a long way since I was elected in that special election in 1989,” she said. That was when Dan Quayle was elevated to the vice presidency and Dan Coats was appointed to the Senate. Long Thompson succeeded Coats in the House.
“There were definitely comments that were made that reflected not complete acceptance of women running for high office,” she said. “There were comments made, for example, that it doesn’t matter if she loses because she’s a woman.”
“The research shows very clearly that not everyone is accepting of a woman holding high office, and particularly high executive office, for example governor or president,” she said.
Long Thompson stressed that those views are a minority, however. The majority believe when you bring a wider variety of talent to the table, you get better decisions.
“I think our big challenge is that we need to encourage more women to run for office at all levels, including Congress,” Brooks said. Just 19 percent of the members of the House are female.
“After 100 years of having women in elected office, I’m disappointed in the numbers we have in office,” Brooks said. “I think we have a long way to go to have more women elected to Congress and more women elected to the U.S. House.”
Former U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar established a program to give Republican women the encouragement and skills they need to run for office. Brooks volunteers with this program.
Brooks said women who run for office need to develop public speaking skills, become comfortable asking for campaign donations and leading teams — office staffs and campaign staffs.
There still has not been a female U.S. senator from Indiana, but that glass ceiling will be broken someday, just as the one in the Oval Office could yield as soon as Tuesday.
*This story has been changed from the original.