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Ask Cokie: Women In Congress

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 1972, Shirley Chisholm declared her candidacy for president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHIRLEY CHISHOLM: I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud.

(APPLAUSE)

CHISHOLM: I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country. Although I am a woman, and I'm equally proud of that.

(APPLAUSE)

CHISHOLM: I am the candidate of the people of America.

MARTIN: She was a trailblazer many times over. Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress. That was 50 years ago. She paved the way for a new milestone. The new Congress that will convene in January will have more women serving than any before. And that record number of women in Congress has many of you asking questions. So let's bring in commentator Cokie Roberts to try to answer them in our regular series, Ask Cokie. Hey.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: All right, so our first question goes back to the very beginning. Mike Koeppen writes as follows. Who was the first female elected official?

ROBERTS: Well, in the United States, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, it was Susan Salter, who was elected mayor of Argonia, Kan., in 1887.

MARTIN: Wow.

ROBERTS: Then, in 1892, Laura Eisenhuth became the first woman elected to statewide office as superintendent of public education in North Dakota. Then women started getting elected to state legislatures. And then finally, in 1916, Montana famously sent the first woman to Congress, Jeannette Rankin.

MARTIN: And that gets us to our next question.

LEA WILLIAMS: This is Lea Williams in Santa Barbara. My question, Cokie, is how soon after we got the vote did we have representation in Congress?

ROBERTS: Well, actually had representation before the vote. Women could vote in several western states before the national suffrage amendment was ratified in 1920. Rankin was a suffragist, helped move the Congress to passing the amendment. She was such a curiosity, Rachel, that she got numerous speaking invitations and marriage proposals.

MARTIN: Wow.

ROBERTS: Yeah. She accepted the speeches, not the men.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

ROBERTS: Then women started to dribble into Congress, many of them widows of congressmen, including my own mother. When she was elected in a special election in 1973, she joined only 15 other women in the House. But many of those widows were re-elected many times over. They rose to prominent and powerful positions. Remember, Rachel, you have to be elected to the House, not appointed.

MARTIN: Right.

ROBERTS: And even in the famous Year of the Woman in 1992, however, only 24 new women were elected to the House, bringing the total to 10 percent. And seven women took seats in the Senate.

MARTIN: All right, so our next listener wants to know what kind of mark women make when they finally get to Congress.

NANCI BOICE: This is Nanci Boice in Austin, Texas. For what accomplishments will the women in Congress be most remembered?

ROBERTS: Well, they're involved in all kinds of legislation. But they've made a concerted effort to work together to help women, children and families. And they formed, in 1977, the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Women's Issues (ph) to do that. The focus has been a lot on economic issues - equal credit, pension reform, child care subsidies, government contracts, IRAs for homemakers, family and medical leave.

And then they've also taken the lead on issues like domestic violence prevention, breast cancer research. All in all, they've made an enormous difference in women's lives. They really are - the women's movement in America is the women in elective office.

MARTIN: All right, Cokie Roberts, thank you so much. You can send your questions about how politics and government work by emailing us at askcokie@npr.org. Or you can tweet us your question with the hashtag #AskCokie. Thanks so much, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.