Why you should care
In honor of Women’s History Month, we look back at a woman who kicked ass in Congress — with a healthy dose of Southern charm.
When Lindy Boggs decided to run for her late husband’s congressional seat in 1973, months after he disappeared in a plane crash, her longtime friend Lady Bird Johnson had just one question: “That’s great, Lindy, but how are you going to do that without a wife?”
Boggs, undeterred, ran anyway, and on March 20, 1973, she became the first woman elected to the House of Representatives from Louisiana.
This was the start of many firsts for the congresswoman. Boggs was the first woman to preside over a major party convention when she served as permanent chairwoman of the 1976 Democratic National Convention. She was the first woman to receive the Congressional Award from the Veterans of Foreign Affairs. Bill Clinton appointed her to be the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See in 1997, where she served until 2001. Another first for women.
“And the truth is, it wasn’t easy to do without a wife,” recalls Boggs’ youngest daughter, journalist Cokie Roberts. “She would often end up doing what the members did and what the wives did.”
Much has changed in the years since: When Boggs was elected, she was the 16th female member to join the House; there are now 79 women in the House and 20 in the Senate.
Know thy power and use it.
Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi held a reception in Boggs’ honor on March 13, 2013, Boggs’ 97th birthday, to celebrate Women’s History Month. Pelosi recalled when, early in her career, she mentioned to Boggs that she felt like she (Pelosi) had so many privileges. “I don’t know why they keep giving me these responsibilities,” she told Boggs. ”I would think I should share one of these titles with someone else.”
“And she says, ‘Darling, no man would have ever said that,’” Pelosi said. Boggs’ advice to Pelosi: “Know thy power and use it.”
Boggs’ power began in her role as the wife of Democrat House Majority Leader Hale Boggs.
“She had run his political campaign, and when he went into the leadership she really ran the district,” says Roberts. After he went missing in a plane crash in October 1972, “it made all the sense in the world for her to run, and I think it never occurred to us that she wouldn’t.”
Boggs said she initially decided to run two months after Hale went missing in order to hold his place for him. “I thought Hale would return, and it would make an easier transition if I had the seat,” she told People magazine in 1976.
Even before she was elected, Boggs was known on the Hill for smoothing things over if her husband did not vote the way people wanted. “She would go behind my father and convince everyone he was really on their team,” says Roberts. “When she actually had to vote, that’s another story. I think that was much harder for her. My sister said to her, ‘Mom, what you’re going to hate about Congress is voting. There’s no ‘maybe’ button.’”
Boggs served on the banking committee and sponsored bills in energy research, housing, health, education, right to privacy and more. She championed a bill to help women obtain equal rights in laws concerning credit and loans. Tulane law professor Tania Tetlow, who once worked as Boggs’ personal assistant, says, ”She was at the forefront of improving economic conditions for women.”
One of Boggs’ greatest legislative accomplishments was her impact on the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which was enacted in 1984, a year after she became a member. Tetlow, in an essay she wrote entitled “Lindy and Me,” said the bill originally forbid lenders from discriminating by race or national origin. “When the bill came through her banking subcommittee, Lindy quickly added in ‘sex and marital status’ and told the committee members sweetly, ‘I am sure you all just overlooked this issue.’”
She was very popular on the Hill and even more so in Louisiana. As People magazine pointed out in 1974: “If it’s difficult to find anyone in Washington who will say an unkind word about Lindy Boggs, it is virtually impossible in New Orleans.”
The compliments for “Miss Lindy,” as she is often referred to in New Orleans, are still rampant today. Her former constituents recount stories of seeing an elderly Boggs walk home to her house on Bourbon Street late at night. When someone offered her a ride to her place, she declined, saying she wanted to be among her people. Another New Orleanian said Boggs once invited her hairdresser over for tea. She had a great relationship with both the black and white communities in the city. She championed civil rights, and in 1990, when she announced her retirement from Congress, she was the only white member representing a black-majority district. Boggs passed away in July.
Today’s hyperpolarized politics could use a dash of Boggs’ sweetness and charm. In Pelosi’s speech honoring the former congresswoman, Pelosi recounted a day in which she was “enthusiastic” in a debate on the House floor. Boggs approached her afterward and said, “These are your friends; you’re going to need each other as you go along.”
Shall we make T-shirts and distribute them throughout the three branches of the government?