Raised in the coal country of Harlan County, Kentucky, Louise Slaughter would eventually serve in the most powerful positions in Washington, DC. But the veteran congresswoman from upstate New York, who was the oldest member of the U.S. House of Representatives when she died Friday at age 88, never forgot where she came from, and she never stopped advocating for the women and men who still have too few champions in Congress.
Slaughter earned degrees in microbiology and public health and after she moved to western New York as a young woman, emerged as a pioneering environmental activist. That activism drew Slaughter into local politics in Rochester and surrounding Monroe County, where Republicans still held many of the top elected positions. She got herself elected to the county legislature in the 1970s, beat a Republican incumbent for a state legislative seat in 1982 and beat another Republican incumbent to win a seat in the US House in 1986 — as the first Democratic representative ever elected to a full term from a district that had been created in 1893.
Slaughter was also the first woman ever to represent Western New York in the House and she hit the ground running as a champion of women’s health initiatives — using her position on the powerful House Budget Committee to earmark money for breast cancer research, to assure that women and people of color were included in federal health clinical trials conducted by the National Institutes of Health, and to establish the federal Office of Research on Women’s Health at the NIH.
Eleanor Smeal, the president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, hailed Slaughter as “an incredible feminist leader” who became “one of the most powerful women to have ever served in the House of Representatives.”
Slaughter used that power to advance some of the most significant legislation of the 20th and 21st centuries during a career that saw her serve with six presidents and influence the direction of Congresses that were led by both Democrats and Republicans.
She co-authored the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, and penned legislation for a permanent Office on Violence Against Women in the US Department of Justice. Years later, as the chair of the powerful House Rules Committee, Slaughter emerged as the most ardent advocate for the inclusion of women’s health initiatives and protections in the Affordable Care Act.
“Louise Slaughter made her mark on history, and women everywhere are living better, safer lives because of her vision and leadership,” National Organization for Women president Toni Van Pelt said Friday. “As one of the longest-serving women in the House of Representatives, Louise Slaughter was a dynamo when it came to women’s rights. She was the first female chair of the all-powerful House Rules Committee, where she facilitated the passage of dozens of bills, including the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Louise Slaughter was the co-chair and founding member of the Congressional Pro-Choice caucus, and an original author of the landmark Violence Against Women Act, which has reduced cases of domestic violence by 67 percent since 1994. Congresswoman Slaughter dedicated the first $500 million in federal funds to breast cancer research at the National Institute of Health (NIH). Prior to 1993, all clinical trials at the NIH were being conducted only on white men. And when the Supreme Court ruled that employers could deny coverage for certain types of contraceptive methods, Louise Slaughter introduced the Not My Boss’s Business Bill, which would ensure that no corporation can choose to deny federally mandated health services.”
Slaughter linked her advocacy on behalf of women to every other issue, serving as one of the most intentionally intersectional members of the House for more than three decades. The environmental concerns that inspired her local activism in the Rochester area — where she fought to save the beech and maple forest of the historic Hart’s Woods in Perinton, New York — remained central to her service, as did issues of concern to working people. She defended labor rights and opposed corporate-sponsored trade deals with a passion that Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, said identified her as one of the most vital advocates for economic justice in the caucus and in the House. “From her work on the economy and trade agreements, to her role on the House Rules Committee,” said Pocan, “Louise was a fighter and a tireless champion.”
I got to know Louise Slaughter many years ago, when Bob McChesney and I were doing our initial work on media and democracy issues. Along with then Congressmen Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, she was one of our first allies in Congress. Slaughter, an outspoken critic of the Bush-Cheney administration’s intervention in Iraq, recognized the role that a dumbed-down and hyper-cautious media had played in facilitating a needless rush to war. And when Bush’s appointees on the Federal Communications Commission sought to scrap federal rules that protected against media consolidation, Slaughter joined us in objecting — in Washington and as one of the handful of House members who attended the 2003 National Conference on Media Reform in Madison, Wisconsin.
With her rich histori perspective and her even more remarkable energy, Louise Slaughter remained engaged with media issues to the end of her life. After Donald Trump’s allies on the FCC gutted net neutrality at the end of 2017, she was at the forefront of the legislative fight to restore a free and open Internet. “Net neutrality prevents large corporations from deciding what Americans see online while safeguarding free speech and enabling our thriving digital economy. The Federal Communications Commission’s recent vote put these protections on the verge of extinction,” Slaughter warned in January of this year. “I’m proud to cosponsor this legislation as we work to reverse this disastrous decision. An issue as important as this should be decided by Congress.”
When we win the fight to restore net neutrality, I plan to toast Louise Slaughter for having been right from the start — on media and democracy issues, and on all of the other economic and social justice issues that she made central to her distinguished service.