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Affairs of (More Than) the Heart

Widows Who Succeed Their Husbands in Congress Honor Legacies While Creating Their Own

The primary duties of Members of Congress filling the roles that their spouses left behind is the same as every other Member: tend to the needs of their constituents and be a legislator. 

And while the six women now in Congress who were preceded in office by their husbands share a reverence for their partners’ legislative legacies — some are involved with causes that bring attention to issues their husbands cared about deeply — they know they’ll be judged by their own records. 

After the death of Rep. Bob Matsui (D-Calif.) in 2005, Doris Matsui picked up the torch of his advocacy for establishing national monuments at the sites of Japanese-American internment camps. 

Bob Matsui was 6 months old when his family was interned at the Tule Lake camp in California.

The late Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.) was active on hunger issues, and his wife, eight-term Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, now co-chairs the Hunger Caucus.

But even as the female lawmakers honor their spouses, they know it’s about much more than memory.

“It’s not about your husband; it’s about the district,” said Rep. Mary Bono Mack, a California Republican whose late husband, pop singer and restaurateur Sonny Bono, was elected to two terms in the House. 

“Sonny felt the same way,” added Bono Mack, who is now married to Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.). 

Matsui can easily rattle off many of the issues that she shared a common passion for with her husband: flood control, transportation, seniors issues, health care and trade. 

But the intersection of policy interests between Matsui and her late husband is more a consequence of serving the same district and sharing a common ideology than an explicit homage to his legislative priorities. 

“Sacramento, my district, is the hub of the region. Transportation and any kind of infrastructure, like flood protection, is definitely something I deal with and that he dealt [with]. It’s something that anyone who represents this district has to do,” she said.

The first widow to serve in Congress after her husband’s death was Rep. Mae Ella Nolan (R-Calif.). She served just one full term from 1923 to 1925, a significant contrast to the lengthier careers of today’s widows.

Nolan’s campaign pitch to voters was simple: She would be a continuation of her husband’s political conscience, with little to no deviation from his policy agenda. In both policy and personnel, Nolan maintained continuity between the political operation of her husband and her own. She kept on his secretary — her sister.  

Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, said the political model for widow lawmakers has changed over time. 

“[There’s] a distinction between those who go as traditional widow and those who are hoping to make their own political career,” Lawless said.

Nolan’s tenure resembled the traditional model, in which the widow isn’t particularly eager for a life in elective office, opting instead to be either a torch carrier for her departed husband or a placeholder for his party. 

Before the current generation, other women filling the seats of their deceased husbands had begun to change the expectations. (To date, no widowers have succeeded their late wives in Congress.)

First elected in 1925, Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.) served 35 years in the House, still the longest Congressional tenure for any woman.

(Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski, with combined service in the House and Senate, will pass Rogers next month.)

Lindy Boggs served from 1973 to 1991 after the death of her husband, House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-La.). Her time in office was impressive not only for its length but for the power and influence she accumulated in her own right as a member of the Appropriations Committee. 

Being politically active in either their own lives or those of their husbands before coming to Congress has helped in the transition from political spouse to long-standing Member. 

Boggs “was very involved with the day to day of [her husband’s] office and was very connected to his work,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. 

Matsui had a wealth of political experience before her time in Congress. She had been a staff member for President Bill Clinton and maintained a decades-long relationship with political powerhouses such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 

In 1996, when injuries from a car accident caused Rep. Walter Capps (D-Calif.) to leave the campaign trail, his wife, Lois, took to the stump to make his case. He won but then died of a heart attack less than a year into his term. Capps used her experience as a surrogate to win a special election in 1998 and has been re-elected easily since. 

“They’re political people. … They’ve been involved in the political component,” Walsh said.

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