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Lindy Boggs

Lindy Boggs was the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana.

Lindy Boggs

Jean Seidenberg.

In the fifty year span of his career as an artist, Jean Seidenberg has accumulated an impressive list of people who have posed for portraits. The subject of this portrait, "Lindy Boggs," was the first woman from Louisiana elected to the United States House of Representatives.

Wife of longtime congressman Hale Boggs (D-LA) and herself a member of the U.S. Congress for eighteen years (1973–1991), Lindy Boggs occupies a unique position in American political history. Whereas most congressional widows merely kept a vacant seat warm until a more qualified male candidate could claim it, Boggs brought political skills and an understanding of issues that allowed her to function successfully from day one and to have a most productive legislative career.

Born to privilege on Brunswick Plantation in Point Coupée Parish in 1916, Lindy Claiborne was an only child whose father died when she was two years old. She graduated from Sophie Newcomb College in 1936 and married T. Hale Boggs a year later. She later summed up the extent of her initial marital aspirations: “Be a good wife and a mother, keep a pretty house and foster and participate in some cultural outlets.” Her ambitious attorney husband entered Congress representing Louisiana’s Second District in 1941as its youngest member but was defeated after only one term. After his war service, voters returned him to the seat in 1946; he rose to become majority leader and served until his disappearance in an aviation accident somewhere over Alaska in 1972.

During her decades as a congressional spouse, Boggs personally ran all of her husband’s post-1946 campaigns, managed his Capitol office, and offered sage advice on legislative matters. She also facilitated his work via her superb entertaining skills. She chaired the inaugural ball committees of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and co-chaired Lady Bird Johnson’s “whistle-stop” campaign tour through the South in 1964; she served as president of the Democratic Wives’ Forum and the Women’s National Democratic Club. Looking back on her entry into Congress to fill her husband’s seat, she joked, “I went from being president of everything to being a mere member of Congress.”

Entering Congress in 1973 after what had in effect been more than two decades of apprenticeship, Lindy Boggs went on to win eight consecutive terms, a striking enough achievement for a congressional spouse but even more dazzling because she was running in a majority-black district. She served on the House Banking and Currency Committee, where she was instrumental in passage of a measure prohibiting discrimination by creditors on the basis of sex or marital status. Her special legislative interests were equal opportunities for women and minorities, housing policy, technological development, and Mississippi River transportation.

As she made her way in public life, Boggs cultivated friends and won virtually no enemies. Said a colleague, not unkindly, “You could get diabetes standing next to Lindy—she’s that sweet.” She became the first woman to preside over a national party convention when she gaveled the Democrats to order in the summer of 1976. She was the unanimous choice of both the House and Senate to preside over a congressional ceremony at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. Admonished to include footage of colleagues who criticized Boggs, a videographer documenting her life wailed plaintively, “There aren’t any!”

In 1990, Lindy Boggs announced that she would not seek reelection, citing her desire to spend more time with her eldest daughter, Barbara, who had terminal cancer. All of her children have had careers involving government: Barbara Boggs Sigmund, mayor of Princeton, New Jersey; Thomas Hale Boggs, Jr., a premier Washington, D.C. lobbyist; and Cokie Boggs Roberts, influential broadcaster covering Congress for National Public Radio and ABC News. In 1997 President Bill Clinton appointed Boggs ambassador to the Vatican, a post she, a devout Catholic, accepted with pleasure. Lindy Boggs died on July 27, 2013, at her home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.