Lindy Boggs, the longtime U.S. Congresswoman from New Orleans who was the first woman to be elected to the House from Louisiana, died Saturday. Boggs, 97, died at her home in Chevy Chase, Md., her daughter, the journalist Cokie Roberts, told the Associated Press. The woman born Marie Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs leaves a rich legacy of advocating for equality, and vivid memories of her arresting charm.
Boggs, who was born on a plantation in New Roads, originally went to Congress in the stead of her husband and former House majority leader, Hale Boggs. Already well-known in Washington, D.C., she assumed the role as representative of the La. Second Congressional District, which includes New Orleans, following his death in 1972. She was elected to the next term, and never faced serious opposition over the following 17 years.
An organizer of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural balls in 1960 and a friend of Lady Bird Johnson and other Washington wives, Lindy Boggs also had an active role in the work at her husband’s office. When his plane disappeared over Alaska, she was more than prepared to take over.
“…She really knew, by the time she was elected to Congress, she really knew the district better than he did,” Cokie Roberts said in an interview with the House Archives. “She knew the growth in the district and the neighborhoods in the district and all that because, by then, he had gone into the leadership and was focusing a lot of his energies on the leadership. Of course, it was the era of civil rights and the Great Society and all that; there was a lot to do. And so her taking over the district basically is what happened.”
In addition to being the wife of the majority leader, she was a descendant of former Louisiana governor William C.C. Claiborne, and a second cousin of former New Orleans deLesseps “Chep” Morrison, Sr. Along with her pedigree, she carried a distinctive charm that is remembered in the same breath as her legislative record.
“They were running goodwill industries, or they were working in family and child services here in the district,” Roberts told the House archives, speaking of her mother and other Washington wives of the time. “And they were working with African-American women to try to make the lives of native Washingtonians better. Dorothy Height and my mother were very good friends. They were doing that while still being incredibly wonderful mothers and deeply dedicated wives and gracious hostesses and running everything.”
During her Congressional career, Boggs became a champion of civil rights, which was a break from other Southern politicians. Even as the Second Congressional District’s black majority grew over the years, she retained the approval of her consituents.
She also maneuvered on legislation that addressed matters like domestic violence, equal pay for women and Title IX funding for women in sports.
“Every woman that has a credit card in her wallet or a mortgage for her home can thank Lindy Boggs for her legislative skill in ensuring protections for gender and marital status were included in the Equal Credit Opportunity Act,” a statement from the Louisiana Democratic Party said.
She was relentless in her pursuits, if not the loudest voice in the room. Former Louisiana Senator Bennett Johnson compared dealing with Boggs to the “drip, drip, drip of Chinese water torture.”
Another former La. Senator, John Breaux, put it this way: “If she wants something done, she can go whisper in (House Speaker) Tip O’Neill’s ear. If I tried that, I’d get a punch in the nose.”
A woman hasn’t been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Louisiana since Boggs left office.
“Our dear friend Lindy will be remembered for generations to come for her selfless and distinguished service to New Orleans, Louisiana and our entire country as a wife, mother, congressional leader, ambassador extraordinaire and trailblazer for women everywhere,” U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, who is currently the only female member of the state’s delegation in Washington. “She has set the gold standard for public service. Our state is in mourning but also in celebration of a life well lived.”
After serving in Congress, Boggs was appointed by President Bill Clinton as the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican in 1997. The devout Catholic, who began each day at 7:15 a.m. held the post through 2001.
When Boggs came home to New Orleans, she lived on Bourbon Street. She inherited the home at 623 Bourbon St. from Frosty Maybert Morrison Blackshear in 1972, and still held the residence until 2010, when she relocated permanently to the Beltway.
Boggs is survived by two children, Cokie Roberts and the D.C. lobbyist Thomas Hale Boggs Jr. Her first daughter, former mayor of Princeton, N.J., Barbara Boggs Sigmund, died of cancer shortly after Lindy Boggs stepped down in 1990.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square at a time to be announced later, according to the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Stephen Babcock contributed reporting.