When we commemorate Women’s History Month, we often remember the famous ladies throughout history whose actions and efforts happened long before a lot of us were born. But, as Sally J. mentioned the other day, there are still a surprising amount of “firsts” left to be had, and there are a lot of women out there kicking ass and taking names, paving the way for the rest of us. Today, I’d like to introduce you to one of the best of them, Louise Macintosh Slaughter.
Louise Slaughter is the Representative for New York’s 28th Congressional District in Western New York. She is the first woman to have chaired the powerful Rules Committee, which decides which bills make it to the floor of the House, when, whether and how they can be amended, and how they can be debated. In the 162 years since the committee was established, Louise remains the only woman to have ever served as chair of that committee.
Louise began her political career in the Monroe County Legislature, a seat she won in 1975 after two failed attempts prior to that. Not long after, she mounted a successful grassroots campaign against an established Republican incumbent to win a seat in the New York State Assembly. In 1986, she used similar grassroots efforts to unseat the established Congressmember in the 30th District and has held that seat(ish) since. After the 2000 census re-drew the lines of her district, with her reelection in 2002, she became the first woman to represent the City of Buffalo (the second-largest city in New York State) in Congress.
The list of her efforts to protect women and the underserved is epically long, but I want to talk for a moment about Louise’s work in health care and women’s health specifically. With a bachelor’s in microbiology (the only member of Congress with that background) and a master’s in public health, she has been uniquely qualified to present a thoughtful, informed platform on these issues, and she has really delivered for the people of her district and beyond. In the 1990s, she helped secure $500 million from the National Institute of Health for breast cancer research, the first such grant awarded for research on cancers that disproportionately affect women. She introduced legislation mandating that women and minorities be included in federal health trials, which had not been required prior to her bill. She authored legislation to prohibit health insurance providers from discriminating against customers based on genetic factors. And she’s the co-chair of the Congressional Bipartisan Pro-Choice Caucus.
Most importantly, Louise was one of the strongest forces behind the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which instituted (and will institute) drastic changes to the health care system here in the U.S. Her remarks in defense of her vote (despite death threats and a brick through her office window) were amazing.
The whole thing is worth a watch (video above) but here is my favorite part:
I believe that all Americans should be treated the same. Let me give you a little history on that. Eight states have declared that domestic violence is a pre-existing condition on the grounds, I assume, that if you’re unlucky enough to get yourself beat up once, you might go around and do it again. 48% is the higher cost for women who, in many cases, have to go buy their own insurance. Believe you me, that is really discriminatory. In 1991, women were not included in any of the trials at the NIH because we had hormones. It wasn’t until we had a critical mass of women here [Congress] that we said, “This will not do for more than half the population of the United States who pay taxes.” That we made certain that diseases like osteoporosis, mainly a women’s disease, cervical cancer, only a women’s disease, uterine cancer and others were really looked at. Up to that point, 1991, all research at the Institutes of Health were done on white males. Now think about that for a minute, if you will. We couldn’t do that because we just said, “Now, kindly stop doing that.” It took legislation.
At 81 years old, Louise Slaughter is still fighting for us in the House. She’s an inspiration to all young girls everywhere who want to hold elected office when they grow up and a reminder that sometimes our feminist heroes are out there still kicking and screaming today.
Photo courtesy Life Magazine.