Cardiss Collins

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Cardiss Collins 1931

Federal legislator

At a Glance

Affirmative Action Became Airborne

Health Insurance with Women in Mind


Cardiss Collins was first elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in June of 1973, in a special election to fill the seat left vacant by her husband, Congressman George W. Collins, who had been killed in an airplane crash. Just two days after her election, Collins started working on a bill to combat credit discrimination against women, just one of several issues concerning women, African Americans, and other minorities that Collins has consistently brought to the attention of federal lawmakers.

During more than two decades in Congress, Collins clearly has been a trailblazer, Jet magazine noted. Collins was the first African American woman to be elected to Congress from the state of Illinois, indeed from the Midwest. For nearly a decade after her election, she was the only black woman serving in Congress. She also was the first African American woman to hold the party leadership rank of Democratic Whip-At-Large. She has also been elected to numerous subcommittees, including the House Government Operations subcommittee on Manpower and Housing and the Commerce, Consumer Protection and Competitiveness subcommittee.

In 1990, when Collins was finally joined in Congress by six other black women, Francis Wilkinson referred to her position as obscure in Rolling Stone. Wilkinson quoted Rep. Maxine Walters: The Founding Fathers never envisioned black women being in this place, so every time another one of us comes, we jolt the system just a little bit more, simply by being here.

Collins was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1931. After getting her degree from Northwestern University, she began working in a series of office positions in government offices in the state of Illinois. When her husband, George Collins, gained a seat as her states congressional representative, her involvement in politics increased and, after his tragic death, she was determined to carry on where he had left off in representing her district.

As chairwoman of the Government Activities and Transportation (GAT) Subcommittee from 1983 to 1991, Collins pushed for groundbreaking laws controlling the transport of toxic materials and to provide safer and more secure air travel. Growing concern about systematic plans to locate landfills and incinerators in minority or poor neighborhoods led her to sponsor a bill that

At a Glance

Born September 24 ,1931, in St. Louis, MO; daughter of Finley Robertson and Rosia Mae Robertson; married George Collins (a congressman; deceased); children: Kevin. Education: Northwestern University.

Illinois Department of Labor, stenographer; Illinois Department of Revenue, secretary, then accountant, then revenue auditor; elected to U.S. House of Representatives Seventh Illinois District, 1973. Has served on numerous committees, including Congressional Caucus on Womens Issues, secretary; Congressional Black Caucus, vice-chairman; Congressional Black Caucus Task Force on Intercollegiate Athletics, chair; and Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, inc., chair.

Member: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Chicago Urban League; LINKS; Coalition of 100 Black Women; National Womens Political Caucus; Black Womens Agenda; National Council of Negro Women; Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority.

Awards: Honored for government service, American Black Achievement Awards, 1991; received honorary degrees from Spelman College, Winston-Salem State University, and Barber-Scotia College.

Addresses: OfficeCongresswoman, House of Representatives, 2308 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515; 328 West Lake, Oak Park, IL 60302; 3880 Kluczynski Federal Bldg., 230 South Dearborn St., Chicago, IL 60604.

would give communities like Chicagos Southeast Side the power to stymie landfills and incinerators proposed for their areas. The bill was meant to keep such neighborhoods from becoming concentrated dumping grounds for garbage and hazardous industrial waste, the Chicago Tribune reported.

In 1985 Collins called on Congress to cut the funding of federal agencies that did not supply information regarding goals and timetables of their affirmative action programs, as required by law. According to Collins, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Federal Trade Commission, and the U.S. Justice Department refused to comply with requirements of the civil rights provision. Laws that have been debated and passed by the courts cannot arbitrarily be negated by individuals, she told Jet.

Affirmative Action Became Airborne

In the mid-1980s, Collins conducted inquiries into the employment practices of the nations airline industry, investigations that showed that most airlinesincluding Trans World and Unitedhired few black and minority employees. At United Airlines in 1985, Jet reported, 1.2 percent of Uniteds pilot applicants were black but fewer than one percent were hired. Fewer than one percent of the airlines black employees were classified as professionals. These investigations resulted in the airlines taking steps to improve affirmative action programs.

In 1987 Collins launched an inquiry into allegations that Eastern Airlines failed to repair critical safety equipment on its planes, an investigation which led to a Federal Aviation Administration white glove inspection of the airline and an unprecedented financial review of Easterns parent company, Texas Air Corp. The serious maintenance practices identified by Collins led to criminal charges being filed against the airline and nine of its managers. Among Collinss other legislative achievements on behalf of minorities and women was an amendment to the Airport and Airway Safety, Capacity, and Expansion Act of 1987, which requires a ten percent participation level in all airport concessions by disadvantaged business enterprises (minority and women-owned businesses).

Always ready to lend assistance when called upon, Collins introduced legislation that would deny federal tax write-offs to major Madison-Avenue advertising firms that ignored black-owned communications media, both print and broadcast. She introduced the Non-Discrimination in Advertising Act, designed to correct a serious injustice against black and other minority-owned media, discrimination she had identified after requesting a 1990 study by the Government Accounting Office (GAO).

In their examination of the federal governments use of minority-owned ad agencies and broadcast stations, the GAO discovered that the Department of Defense, which accounts for 95 percent of federal advertising, had failed to comply with non-discrimination regulations. There was little contracting with minority-owned media and advertising companies, Jet reported. Officials of the National Association of Black-Owned Broadcasters complained that they were subject to systematic discrimination, a situation that Collins found intolerable, especially in instances in which ad agencies and their clients refused to advertise in media owned by blacks even when minorities were the targeted audience.

Collinss investigations of college sports resulted in increased pressure on colleges and universities to carry out the mandates of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which calls for equal opportunities for women athletes to participate in collegiate sports and to improve the graduation rates of athletes. Prodding from Collins led to the NCAA proposal to take steps toward gender equity in sports.

In a commentary in USA Today, Collins took issue with suggestions that the equal treatment of women collegiate athletes would somehow diminish mens athletic programs. She stated that the NCAA will have to do a better job of enforcing Title IX or Congress would have to step in. On February 17, 1993, Collins introduced H.R. 921, the Equity in Athletic Disclosure Act, designed to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to require institutions of higher education to disclose gender participation rates and program expenditures.

Health Insurance with Women in Mind

A long-time advocate for universal health insurance, Collins co-sponsored both the Universal Health Care Act of 1993 and President Clintons controversial Health Security Actshe chaired one of four subcommittees to which Clintons health plan was referred during 1993. As part of the latter Act, Collins argued fiercely for the establishment of a federal Office on Minority Health to increase research and track the health care needs of Americas minority population. Little use has been made of studies on minority prone diseases despite the significant disproportionate array of health conditions, she noted in hearings before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Collinss arguments helped persuade the committee to approve the high-level policy-making office in the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Jet reported. Collins pointed out that the office would be able to influence the NIH to ensure that the needs of minorities were taken into account in products under NIH authority. Collins said clinical trials for pharmaceuticals often have failed to include minorities, even though they may experience reactions, side effects or success rates that are different from those of the general population.

From 1991 to 1993, the House of Representatives adopted Collinss resolution designating October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Collins wrote the 1990 law expanding Medicare coverage to include a screening mammography for millions of elderly and disabled women. She also sponsored the Medicaid Infant Mortality Act of 1991, as well as legislation to provide Medicaid coverage for Pap smears enabling the early detection of cervical and uterine cancer. In 1993, Collins authored the Child Safety Protection Act, legislation requiring warning labels on dangerous toys as well as federal safety standards for bicycle helmets.

Although Collins has continued to maintain a somewhat low public profile, in 1994, she found herself engaged in sharp, bitter debate with fellow Illinois Representative Henry Hyde over passage of the Hyde Amendment, a prohibition on the use of federal funds for abortion which must be renewed annually. In the midst of floor debate over the amendment, Hyde made statements that Collins found too much to bear, shouting out that the House was no place for that kind of debate, Rolling Stone reported. Although the floor fight was ostensibly about abortion, it was clear that something new and volatile had been added to the mix. Suddenly, a core of angry black women was giving new voice to an issue championed predominantly by white men, commented Wilkinson.

Indeed, Collins and her more recently elected peers found themselves among the floor leaders of a move to repeal the ban on federal funding of abortions for poor women under Medicaid, according to Emerge. Backed by fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Collinss increasingly visibility makes plain that she plans to continue her political career of championing the rights of minorities, women, and the poor.


Chicago Tribune, July 1,1993, p. SI; April 30,1993, sec. 2C, p. 3.

Congressional Yellow Book, summer 1994, pp. 1159.

Ebony, January 1992, p. 66.

Emerge, October 1993, p. 26.

Jet, December 22, 1986, p. 4; March 23, 1987, p. 8; January 28, 1991, p. 5; March 29, 1993, p. 29; March 7,1994, pp. 67; April 25,1994, p. 33; June 5, 1995, p. 10.

New York Times, December 14, 1993, p. B15.

Rolling Stone, May 19, 1994, p. 43.

USA Today, February 10, 1993, p. All.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from biography and publicity packet supplied by the office of Congresswoman Cardiss Collins.

Laurie Freeman

views updated

Collins, Cardiss

September 24, 1931

Cardiss Robertson Collins was the first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. Born in St. Louis, Cardiss Robertson moved with her family to Detroit when she was ten years old. She studied accounting at Northwestern University and in 1958 married George Washington Collins, a local politician. Collins helped organize campaigns for her husband. Her own career in politics began when she became Democratic committeewoman in Chicago's twenty-fourth ward.

After U.S. Congressman George Collins died in 1972, Cardiss Collins resigned her position with the Illinois Department of Revenue, ran for his seat, and won handily. She took office on June 5, 1973. In 1979 she became the first woman to chair the Congressional Black Caucus. Two years later she became the first African American and the first woman to be appointed Democratic whip-at-large. In the mid-1980s she led inquiries into the employment practices of the airline industry. She also investigated college sports and pressed colleges and universities to meet the mandates of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 regarding female athletes. The NCAA yielded to her prodding and moved to bring about gender equity in sports. Collins introduced the Non-Discrimination in Advertising Act aimed to correct injustices against minorityowned media. In 1993 she co-authored the Child Safety Protection Act, which set standards for bicycle helmets and required warning labels on potentially dangerous toys.

Throughout her political career, Collins was a strong advocate of civil rights, the rights of women and the poor, and of universal health insurance. She wrote the resolution that designated October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

After twenty-three years in Congress, Collins retired in 1996.

See also Congressional Black Caucus; Politics in the United States


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Gaither, Gerald H. Blacks and the Populist Revolt: Ballots and Bigotry in the "New South." Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1977.

Goodwyn, Lawrence C. "The Populist Response to Black America." In Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

jessie carney smith (2001)
Updated by publisher 2005