Cardiss Collins had no political experience but she ended up becoming one of the longest-serving African American women in the history of the United States Congress. She served 12 consecutive terms in Congress, indicative of the confidence voters in Chicago reposed in her to represent them.
She became the successor of her husband, George Washington Collins, who died in a plane crash near Chicago’s Midway airport in 1972, shortly after winning his second term in Congress. Collins never gave politics a thought but the urgings and pressure from voters in Chicago made her consider filling her late husband’s political void.
She became the first African-American woman’s representative in Congress for the state of Illinois on June 5, 1973, after beating republican contender Lar Daly and independent candidate Angel Moreno, with a sweeping 92 percent of the vote. She is known to be one of the most committed legislators who advocated for economic and social reforms in Congress over her two-decade service.
Collins was born Cardiss Hortense Robertson on September 24, 1931, in St. Louis, Missouri to Rosia Mae Robertson, a nurse, and Finley, a laborer. She attended the Detroit High School of Commerce in Michigan. Her working life started as a factory hand in Chicago where she tied mattress springs while residing with her maternal grandmother.
She later became a stenographer at a carnival equipment company. Despite being gainfully employed, Representative Collins wanted to add value to herself. She took up night classes at Northwestern University where she acquired a business certificate in 1966. A year later, she furthered her education to attain a diploma in professional accounting.
Collins got hired as a secretary at the Illinois Department of Labor and later became an auditor for the Illinois Department of Revenue until she took up political office. Her first political moment was when she served as a committee woman for Chicago’s Democratic ward organization.
She married her husband in 1958 and supported him through his political journey as an alderman, committeeman, and U.S Representative while taking care of their son, Kevin. Through her dedicated service on various committees in Congress, she was selected as a Democratic whip-at-large, making her the first African American and the first woman to hold the position.
She was involved in issues that centered on her constituents compelling her to devote eight days each month to address the myriad of issues affecting them. Political watchers said this possibly resulted in Representative Collins’ long stay in office and her impressive vote margins at the polls, defeating Republican contenders by more than 80 percent.
She was vociferous when she was made chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus and is recorded to have criticized President Jimmy Carter on his commitment to civil rights. She also condemned the president for not doing enough to galvanize congress to pass legislation to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a federal holiday.
Representative Collins also lashed out at the House of Representatives accusing some of them of being racist in failing to pass the legislation. She was known as a staunch advocate for breast cancer awareness and the force behind the legislation that recognized October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
She died on February 3, 2013, at the age of 81.