Definitive Moments of American Women in Politics

During 2014's midterm elections, Alma Adams made history. The North Carolina Democrat defeated Republican Vince Coakley to join 79 women in the House and 20 in the Senate, making this the record number of women in U.S. Congress. According to Policy Mic, the number of women serving in both state legislatures and U.S. Congress has steadily increased over the past 34 years. 

Congresswoman Adams continues a legacy of women--past and present--who fight for equal representation and real democracy in American government. In the gallery above meet women who shaped political views today, from Margaret Chase Smith of Maine to Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.



When Margaret Chase Smith’s Republican Congressman husband died in the 1940s, she won a special election and took his place. She went on to win four more elections on her own and, in 1948, she won a Senate seat, becoming the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. Unlike many other female politicians at the time, Chase Smith broke from her husband’s party lines. In 1950, she made a Declaration of Conscience, calling McCarthyism a danger to American values. She said, “I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.”

In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman in Congress. She was a strong advocate for issues of child welfare, civil rights and women’s equality.   Journalist Gwen Ifill remembers the late Congresswoman: “She was there to represent the people who nobody ever listened to. She was loud. She was insistent that people hear her. And to me, that’s almost the best description of what a public servant, what an elected representative is supposed to be.”

When Geraldine Ferraro joined Walter Mondale’s ticket in 1984, she became the first woman on a major party presidential ticket. Though they didn’t win, Ferraro ushered in a sense of possibility for women across the nation. Senator Tammy Baldwin reflects many women’s feelings: “I graduated from college in 1984 and I still remember watching Geraldine Ferraro take the stage with tears streaming down my face, thinking my whole future is ahead of me. And I can do anything. I can aspire to anything. That moment was so moving to me.”

Most campaign funding came from the so-called “old boys network,” people and organizations within the party that aimed to fund winning candidates year after year. They were generally unwilling to support women. In 1986,  Barbara Mikulski’s Senator campaign was struggling due to a lack of funding. “[She] used to talk about having everything she could think of. Bake sales for Barb. Barbecues for Barb. Bowling for Barb. Anything to put together those 10, 25 dollar contributions so she could get up on television and win her campaign,” Ellen Malcolm says. To help, Malcolm reached out to a network of women, asking them to donate small amounts of money to Mikulski’s campaign. Emily’s List was born: The name stood for Early Money Is Like Yeast, and it propelled Mikulski to a Senate seat. She became one of two women in the Senate.  

When law professor Anita Hill came forward in 1991, the Senate committee overseeing Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings was simply going to ignore her. Since the women of the Senate were so outnumbered, Congresswomen stood up for Hill, demanding the committee reopen the hearings so her sexual harassment case could be heard. When Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court anyway, a firestorm erupted among American women. In MAKERS: Women in Politics, Barbara Mikulski says, “Women around America felt outraged. And my slogan became ‘Don’t get mad. Get elected.’” The women who ran would find support: Over the next year, Emily’s List grew from about 3,000 members to 24,000 members.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton began her campaign for president. She became the first woman to win a presidential primary, but lost the party nomination to Barack Obama. Her campaign exposed both nationwide sexism (“Iron my shirt!”) and the power of the woman vote.    

When the government shut down in 2013, it was women who came together to find a way forward. Senator Susan Collins sums up the power of these leading women: “Women span the ideological spectrum and I always rebel against the notion that somehow we think alike or have identical views on issues. We don’t.  But what we do share is a commitment to problem solving.”