Cardiss Collins had no political experience, but she became one of the longest-serving African American women in US Congress history. She served in Congress for 12 consecutive terms, demonstrating the trust voters in Chicago had in her to represent them.
She succeeded her husband, George Washington Collins, who was killed in a plane crash near Chicago’s Midway airport shortly after winning his second term in Congress in 1972. Collins had never considered running for office, but the urgings and pressure from Chicago voters prompted her to consider filling her late husband’s political void.
On June 5, 1973, she became the first African-American woman elected to Congress from the state of Illinois, defeating Republican candidate Lar Daly and independent candidate Angel Moreno with a landslide 92 percent of the vote. During her two-decade tenure in Congress, she was known as one of the most dedicated legislators who advocated for economic and social reforms.
Collins was born Cardiss Hortense Robertson on September 24, 1931, in St. Louis, Missouri, to a nurse named Rosia Mae Robertson and a laborer named Finley. In Michigan, she attended the Detroit High School of Commerce. Her career began as a factory worker in Chicago, where she tied mattress springs while living with her maternal grandmother.
She went on to work as a stenographer for a carnival equipment company. Despite being well-paid, Representative Collins desired to add value to herself. She enrolled in night classes at Northwestern University and earned a business certificate in 1966. A year later, she furthered her education to attain a diploma in professional accounting.
Collins began her career as a secretary for the Illinois Department of Labor and later as an auditor for the Illinois Department of Revenue before entering politics. Her first foray into politics was as a committeewoman for Chicago’s Democratic ward organization.
She married her husband in 1958 and supported him as an alderman, committeeman, and U.S. Representative while caring for their son, Kevin. She was chosen as a Democratic whip-at-large as a result of her dedicated service on various committees in Congress, making her the first African American and the first woman to hold the position.
She was involved in issues involving her constituents, which required her to devote eight days each month to addressing the plethora of issues affecting them. Political observers believe this contributed to Representative Collins’ long tenure in office and her impressive vote margins at the polls, which saw her defeat Republican challengers by more than 80%.
She was a vehement critic of President Jimmy Carter’s commitment to civil rights when she was appointed chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. She also chastised the president for failing to do enough to persuade Congress to pass legislation making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday.
Representative Collins also attacked the House of Representatives, accusing some of them of racism for failing to pass the legislation. She was a vocal supporter of breast cancer awareness and the driving force behind legislation designating October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
On February 3, 2013, she died at the age of 81.