A Century of Women in Congress

A Century of Women in Congress

Office of the House Historian, U.S. House of Representatives

On November 7, 1916, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to Congress. To commemorate the centennial of Rankin’s election to the House of Representatives and her April 1917 swearing-in, the Office of the House Historian conducted interviews with former women Representatives and staff to create A Century of Women in Congress, an ongoing web-based oral history project that examines the significant, and understudied, role of women in congressional history. 

Oral histories serve as a window into the inner workings of Congress, granting unique access to campaigns, personal relationships, and behind-the-scenes details of the legislative process. This project shows how ideas about gender influenced the working environment for women in Congress. Throughout, these interviews highlight the agency of women Representatives and staff in breaking down political, procedural, and customary boundaries. They also demonstrate the prevalence of gendered inequities within the institution. 

The process of organizing transcripts, video clips, and images for presentation in this digital public history exhibit posed historical and archival challenges. The website is a dynamic archive that serves both as a repository and a means of presenting historical analysis. By February 2017, the Office of the Historian had conducted interviews with 15 former Members of Congress, seven staff members, and one family member, producing more than 42 hours of video and audio recordings and more than 1,100 pages of transcripts. From this material, we extracted 250 video clips and paired them with more than 80 photographs in the online exhibit. 

Building an online oral history exhibit is a creative process that involves managing, organizing, and synthesizing a vast trove of material. A number of questions arose as we managed the process. How will the material be arranged on the site? How can we pair videos and transcripts with photographic images and scanned documents to enrich the user experience? In many cases, the ideas and stories of some interviewees emerge vividly in a lengthy transcript but struggle to resonate in a short video clip. Through our online oral history exhibit, a transcript can be downloaded as a searchable PDF document, accessible through a single page for each interviewee that includes a short biography, images, and an abstract of the interview.

To improve access and frame this material for an online audience, we extracted short video clips from each two-hour interview. We sorted the clips thematically to highlight significant ideas that transcended individual interviews, to emphasize the shared experience of women in Congress. By including video clips as well as full transcripts, our digital public history exhibit is designed to attract a broad audience for congressional history, from the general public to students and professional historians, while offering new ways to explore women’s struggle for power and parity within the institution.