A Heckler in Washington

Imagine walking into the House of Representatives on your first day as a newly-elected member of Congress and seeing only ten other women among a total of 435 Representatives. That was Margaret Heckler’s reality as she began her career in Washington in January, 1967. Having won her seat by defeating Republican incumbent Joseph W. Martin, Jr., a former Speaker of the House who had been serving since 1925, she was described as “perky” and “petite” but also “no shrinking violet.” She had already earned a reputation as an astute politician from her two terms on the Massachusetts Governor’s Council, and she was ready to make her mark in Congress. Heckler would go on to champion women’s issues and co-found the Congresswomen’s Caucus, all while navigating the male-dominated world of politics.

Photo of Headline from a Boston Globe article about Heckler, January 15, 1967.

Headline from a Boston Globe article about Heckler, January 15, 1967. Margaret Heckler papers, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

John J. Burns Library holds Margaret Heckler’s Congressional papers as well as materials from her later career as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and ambassador to Ireland. For the past year, I have been arranging and describing her papers (what archivists call “processing”) to make them available to researchers. As Alison Harris mentioned in her blog post about processing the Edward P. Boland papers, Congressional collections often do not come to a repository in a well-organized manner, due to a number of circumstances surrounding reelection, staff changes, and committee assignments. It has been a challenge to make sense of all of the materials documenting different parts of Heckler’s career. As I near the end of this project, I am gratified to see the collection coming together in a way that I hope will be meaningful to researchers.

Margaret Heckler began her Congressional career during the period of second-wave feminism, when women’s rights advocates turned their focus to a broader range of issues: legal rights, domestic violence, reproductive rights, and workplace equality. She often described the difficulty she had getting a job in a Boston firm in the late 1950s  as a recent law graduate. One congratulatory letter from another Representative stated that “We need more good men like you in Congress,” and, throughout her career, she would receive letters addressed to Mr. Heckler or Dear Sir. But Heckler appears to have been unshaken in her quest to advance her career and the rights of women. As a staunch proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), she fought unsuccessfully to keep support for passage of the ERA on the Republican platform at the 1980 Convention. Heckler was particularly interested in women’s economic rights, and was involved in the 1974 passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act which prohibited discrimination in credit transactions on the basis of sex or marital status. She fought for Social Security benefits for homemakers and widowed women, and for affordable, safe child care for working mothers.

Poster advertising child care hearings in Fall River, MA, 1971. "Security of knowing your children are safe while you work" Support the need for more Quality DAY CARE CENETERS in Fall River

Poster advertising child care hearings in Fall River, MA, 1971. Margaret Heckler papers, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

I was excited to discover, however, that women’s issues were not the only thing that Margaret Heckler cared deeply about. A member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee during her 16 years in Congress, she was a tireless champion of veterans’ health care and education benefits. Her papers include extensive files on G.I. bills, Agent Orange hearings, and veteran senior citizen health care legislation. Heckler also served on the Agriculture Committee where she was involved in food stamp and nutrition legislation. Although not from a large agricultural state, she felt that these issues were important and that her voice on the Agriculture Committee would benefit her constituents. She was also a proponent of the development of alcohol fuels and gasohol, pumping the first gallon of gasohol in the state of Massachusetts at a Raynham gas station in 1979. She was deeply concerned about the cost of home heating oil in Massachusetts, and worked as part of the New England Congressional Caucus on energy issues.


Margaret Heckler lost reelection to Rep. Barney Frank in 1982, but was quickly chosen by President Reagan to replace retiring Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Richard Schweiker. Despite having no background or experience in medicine, she vowed to be a “catalyst for caring” at her Senate confirmation hearing. During her two and a half years at HHS she named the AIDS epidemic as the department’s number one priority, increasing research funding. One of her biggest accomplishments at HHS was the landmark Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health, known as the Heckler Report, which identified the differences in health outcomes of whites and minorities in America. In late 1985, after criticism about her HHS management and commitment to conservative Republican values from White House aides and officials, she was asked to give up her HHS position and become Ambassador to Ireland. Heckler seems to have thrived in her role representing U.S. interests in the country of her parents’ birth. The papers from her time in Ireland include warm correspondence between her and government officials, business leaders, and friends.


Photograph of Margaret Heckler with her Irish wolfhound, Jackson O’Toole, in the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Dublin, Ireland, circa 1986-1989.

Heckler with her Irish wolfhound, Jackson O’Toole, in the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Dublin, Ireland, circa 1986-1989. Margaret Heckler papers, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Processing the Margaret Heckler papers has been an eye-opening experience for me, both in terms of learning about Congressional collections and in getting a glimpse of what it was like to be a woman in politics in the 1960s-80s. One of the primary conclusions that I can draw from my experience with Heckler’s papers is that bipartisanship and collegiality were very much alive during most of her career in Washington. I’ve been surprised to discover that, as a moderate Republican, many of Heckler’s views would be considered liberal today. Senator Ted Kennedy introduced Heckler at her Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Health and Human Services. It would be hard to imagine a Democrat presenting a Republican Cabinet Secretary nominee today. Collections like this document important periods in our nation’s political history, and John J. Burns Library is looking forward to opening the Margaret Heckler papers to researchers early next year.

  • Katie Lamontagne, Project Archivist, John J. Burns Library


About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

Located in the original Bapst Library building on Boston College's Chestnut Hill campus, the John J. Burns Library offers students, scholars, and the general public opportunities to engage with rare books, special collections, and archives.
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