A Woman in the House (And Senate): How Women Came to the United States Congress, Broke Down Barriers, and Changed the Country

By Ilene Cooper

Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley


The title of this book was the slogan of Bella Abzug’s 1970 successful election campaign.  But, for the first 128 years of our government, there were no women in Congress.  It wasn’t until a feisty suffragist from Montana named Jeannette Rankin won her state’s 1917 congressional election that women first came to the House. She declared, “I may be the first woman member of Congress but I won’t be the last.” She wasn’t but it’s been slow going.  Written primarily for young readers, Cooper’s delightfully illustrated book chronicles more than 150 years of American history and the lives of the trailblazing female leaders who have helped shape it.

In these pages you will meet Rebecca Felton, the first female senator; Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman in Congress; and Patsy Takemoto Mink, the first woman of color in Congress.  You will read about the friendship between Bella Abzug and Millicent Fenwick who, although Azburg was a Democrat and Fenwick was a Republican, worked together for civil rights, women’s rights and human rights.  Just as Abzug was known for her outsized hats, elegant and pearl-wearing Millicent Fenwick was known for smoking a pipe that turned heads all over Washington D.C.  You will discover that it wasn’t until 1981, when President Ronald Reagan appointed Sandra Day O’Connor to be the first female Supreme Court Justice that almost 200 years of the all-male Supreme Court came to an end.   O’Connor had graduated from Stanford Law School almost 30 years before but had trouble finding a job because she was a woman.  The book profiles women from both sides of the aisle, familiar and unfamiliar to the general public, and reveals how it is the women leaders of Congress that have taken on the issues that are nearest to the public’s concerns such as healthcare, maternity leave, and childcare.  It is unbelievable to read that in 1978, women were still being excluded from potentially life-saving medical trials.

The book contains illustrations and photography, an appendix, a bibliography, a chart showing every woman who has served in the United States Congress, and a foreword by former U.S. Senator, Olympia Snowe.  It is important to point out that since this book was published in 2014, there has been a significant change in the makeup of Congress due to the results of the 2018 midterm elections.  The 116thCongress represents the biggest jump in women members since the 1990’s.  Women now make up nearly a quarter of the voting members of Congress, the highest percentage in United States History.  A record 102 women will serve in the incoming House of Representatives.  Ilene Cooper has a whole new chapter to add to this book!  But, the 2018 results would never have happened without the fearless and tenacious women who came before and found their place in the House and the Senate.  As former Senator Snowe writes in the foreword, “The stories told here should spark all of us - and particularly girls and women – to close the gender gap…. We are now the bearers of the torch that so many lit before us, and of their extraordinary legacy, which will forever endure.”

February 2019 Book Review