WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs, a plantation-born Louisianan who used her soft-spoken grace to fight for civil rights during nearly 18 years in Congress after succeeding her late husband in the House of Representatives, died Saturday. She was 97.
Boggs, who later served three years as ambassador to the Vatican during the Clinton administration, died of natural causes at her home in Maryland, according to her daughter, ABC News journalist Cokie Roberts.
Boggs’ years in Congress started with a special election in 1973 to finish the term of her husband, Thomas Hale Boggs Sr., whose plane had disappeared over Alaska six months earlier. Between them, they served a half-century in the House.
“It didn’t occur to us that anybody else would do it,” Roberts said in explaining why her mother was the natural pick for the congressional seat. Her parents, who had met in college, were “political partners for decades,” she said, with Lindy Boggs running her husband’s political campaigns and becoming a player on the Washington political scene.
Roberts called her mother “a trailblazer for women and the disadvantaged.”
When Boggs announced her retirement in 1990, she was the only white representative of a black-majority district in Congress. “I am proud to have played a small role in opening doors for blacks and women,” she said at the time.
As family tragedy brought her in to Congress, so did it usher her out. At the time of her July 1990 announcement, her daughter Barbara Boggs Sigmund, mayor of Princeton, New Jersey, was dying of cancer. Sigmund died that October.
Her son, Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., is a leading Washington lawyer and lobbyist.
The elder Boggs was first elected to Congress in 1940, two years after the couple married. Both were also active in local reform groups.
Breaking with most Southern whites, Lindy Boggs saw civil rights as an inseparable part of the political reform movement of the 1940s and ’50s.
She worked for the Civil Rights Acts of 1965 and 1968, the Head Start pre-school education program, and other programs to help minorities, the poor and women.
After she entered Congress, Boggs used her seat on the House Banking and Currency Committee to include women in the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974.
As the first woman to chair the Democratic National Convention, in 1976, she decreed that she would be addressed as “Madam Chairwoman,” rather than “Madam Chairman” or “Madam Chairperson.”
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, one of the hardest-hit facilities was Lindy Boggs Medical Center, a historic hospital named in her honor the previous year.
Corinne Claiborne was born March 13, 1916, on a plantation near New Orleans, a descendant of William C.C. Claiborne, the state’s first elected governor. She came to be known as Lindy, according to Roberts, because a nurse thought she looked like her father, Roland Claiborne, and called her “Rolindy.”
She attended Sophie Newcomb College, affiliated with Tulane University, and met her future husband when both were editors of the Tulane student paper. She taught school between graduation in 1935 and their marriage in 1938.
In her first election for Congress, in March 1973, she had to overcome prejudice against her gender and privileged background.
Her Vatican posting was from 1997 to early 2001, and she said her goals were to work with the Vatican on promoting democracy, tolerance, religious freedom, peace and human rights.
In 2000, she announced that she would resign after President Bill Clinton left office, no matter which party won.
Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said in a statement that Boggs possessed “a keen intelligence and enduring charm,” and was “a true original” who was “as graceful as she was effective.”
“The country has lost a champion for civil rights and a trailblazer for women,” they said.
In addition to her children, Boggs is survived by eight grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.