Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
Lindy Boggs, the lifelong public servant and iconic Southern woman who became the first Louisiana female elected to the U.S. Congress and first female U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, has died. She was 97.
Her daughter, ABC News and NPR journalist Cokie Roberts, says her mother died Saturday of natural causes at her home in Chevy Chase, Md.
After Hurricane Katrina, Mrs. Boggs had relocated closer to family in the Washington, D.C. area, including Roberts and son Thomas Hale Boggs, an influential lobbyist and lawyer. Up until the storm, Mrs. Boggs was a notable resident of New Orleans’ legendary Bourbon Street.
Most recently, she returned to the city in October 2011 for the funeral of her longtime friend and colleague, retired Archbishop Philip Hannan.
A tireless civic activist and community force well into her retirement, Mrs. Boggs served nine terms in the House of Representatives, after finding herself in the unenviable position of being elected to replace her husband, House Majority Leader Thomas “Hale” Boggs, in Congress in 1973. He was presumed dead after the plane on which he was traveling for a campaign trip disappeared in Alaska.
In a 2000 interview recounting the tragedy which thrust her into a political career, Mrs. Boggs displayed the grace and charm for which she was known.
“I’ve been very privileged. I’ve had some heartaches, but I’ve also had some wonderful privileges,” she said.
When she was elected to her first full term in Congress in 1974, Mrs. Boggs became the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana. During close to 20 years as Representative of the state’s Second Congressional District, which includes New Orleans, she would show a particular interest for women’s and children’s issues. She helped to write the Employment Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 and held seats on the powerful House Appropriations Committee and the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families.
Roberts called her mother "a trailblazer for women and the disadvantaged."
When Boggs announced her retirement in 1990, she was the only white representing 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.
Hale 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.
"You couldn't want to reverse the injustices of the political system and not include the blacks and the poor. It was just obvious," she said in 1990.
She worked for the Civil Rights Acts of 1965 and 1968, Head Start and other programs to help minorities, the poor and women.
After she entered Congress, Boggs used her seat on the House Appropriations Committee to steer money to New Orleans and the rest of the state. As a member of the House Banking and Currency Committee, she used typical steely grace to include women in the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974.
"I ran into a room where there was a copying machine, wrote in 'sex and marital status' on the bill, and made 47 copies," she said. "When I took it back into the subcommittee meeting, I told them I was sure it was just an oversight on their part."
As a testament to her popularity among Louisiana voters and staying power in the always tumultuous political world, Mrs. Boggs never faced a serious challenger during her 18 years in Congress.
"Looking back, I never expected to stay in Congress as long as I did. I didn't run for just that one term, but I thought I would finish Hale's agenda, concentrating on international trade, housing, taxes, civil and equal rights,” she wrote in her 1994 memoir, “Washington Through a Purple Veil: Memoirs of a Southern Woman,” written with Katherine Hatch.
“I never expected that I would develop my own agenda or that I would become a voice and a vote for many women during two tumultuous decades,” Mrs. Boggs wrote.
Born Marie Corinne Morrison Claiborne in New Roads, Louisiana, Mrs. Boggs, who grew up on her family’s plantation, was nicknamed “Rolindy,” after her father Roland. She was a descendant of the state’s first governor, William C.C. Claiborne, and was second cousin to deLesseps “Chep” Morrison, Mayor of New Orleans from 1946 to 1961.
Before her own Congressional career, Mrs. Boggs spent many years at the helm of her husband’s political campaigns, beginning with his first in 1941, and supporting him as he became one of the Capitol’s powerbrokers.
The two were married in 1938, after a courtship which began at a college fraternity dance in New Orleans. An aspiring journalist, Mrs. Boggs was a student at Tulane University’s Sophie Newcomb College. Her future husband was a promising young law student at Tulane.
Her own congressional career would come to an end in 1990, but Mrs. Boggs was poised to take on a new, even more prominent role. In 1997, President Bill Clinton asked Mrs. Boggs, a devout Roman Catholic, to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. At age 81, she became the first American woman to hold the diplomatic position.
“My entire adult life has been engaged in service to the institution of the Congress. I look forward to this new and exciting opportunity to further expression of those goals,” she said at her nomination hearing. Daughter Cokie Roberts called the hearing a “love fest,” with friends and colleagues in the Senate speaking nothing but praise for the octogenarian.
“It makes me feel like I've been asked to come here and present Mother Teresa to the committee for confirmation,” said Sen. John Breaux, the Louisiana Democrat who served with Mrs. Boggs in Congress for more than a decade.
In 2000, she announced that she would resign after President Bill Clinton left office, no matter which party won. "It's been an honor and a privilege and a wonderful opportunity to be in this position, but it's also extremely exhausting," she said at the time.
In another sign of her trailblazing career, Mrs. Boggs was the first woman to chair a major political party’s presidential nominating convention. She chaired the Democratic convention in New York in 1976.
As the first woman to chair the convention, she decreed that she would be addressed as "Madam Chairwoman," rather than "Madam Chairman" or "Madam Chairperson."
"I'm a woman," she said. And, "Why should it be neuter?"
She also served as a regent on the Smithsonian board and was selected to preside over the Bicentennial of the American Constitution in 1987 and the commission commemorating the 200th anniversary of Congress.
In another sign of her family’s lifetime commitment to public service, Mrs. Boggs’ first daughter, Barbara Boggs Sigmund, was elected mayor of Princeton, N.J. Sigmund died of cancer in 1990.
During her political career and well into retirement, Mrs. Boggs was active on behalf of countless charitable causes, particularly in the area of education, including Loyola University (where a National Center for Community Literacy bears her name), the University of New Orleans (home to the Lindy C. Boggs International Conference Center) and Tulane University, where she served as special counsel to the university president. Tulane dedicated its Lindy Claiborne Boggs Center for Energy and Biotechnology in 1988. She held honorary degrees from Tulane, Loyola, Xavier and more than 30 other educational institutions.
The recipient of countless local and national honors, in 2006, she was awarded the Congressional Distinguished Service Award for her time in the House of Representatives.
In addition to her children, Boggs is survived by eight grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond said funeral services for Boggs will occur at 11 a.m. Thursday, August 1 at St. Louis Cathedral. Visitation for will be from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., and Aymond will celebrate the funeral Mass.
- Associated Press contributed to this report