Margaret Mary O'Shaughnessy Heckler

Margaret Mary O'Shaughnessy Heckler (born 1931) was an attorney, congressional representative, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Ambassa dor to the Republic of Ireland.

Margaret Heckler was born in Flushing, New York, in 1931, the daughter of John and Alice O'Shaughnessy. She graduated from Albertus Magnus College, where she had been a political science major and active in student politics, in 1953. She met her husband, John, a stockbroker, while in college, and, although they were divorced in 1984, he was a strong supporter of her political ambitions during most of their 30-year marriage. The Hecklers had three children: Belinda, Alison, and John.

In 1956 Heckler was the only woman in her graduating class at Boston College Law School, where she had been elected editor of the Law Review. She entered Massachusetts politics in 1962 as the first woman elected to the Governor's Council. In 1966 she was elected as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives and represented Massachusetts' 10th District for 16 years.

Despite negligible support from the Republican Party, she had won her first term in the House and attributed her victory to the support of women constituents. Her campaign slogan, "Massachusetts needs a Heckler in the House," symbolized the frequently independent stance she took during her subsequent eight terms in Congress. During the Nixon administration (1969-1974) she criticized the president on such issues as the conduct of the war in Vietnam and cuts in federal support for child-care for children of working mothers.

During her years in public service Heckler demonstrated a firm commitment to supporting such women's issues as equal credit laws and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1977 she helped found the Congress-women's Caucus, "a bipartisan group of women in the House and Senate working on legislative issues 'to improve the rights, representation, and status of women in America."' Concerns of the caucus included: revision of the Social Security system's treatment of women, improvements in monitoring programs and procedures specifically directed to women's health, displaced homemakers, sexism in public education, women in small business, domestic violence, legal rights for women, and older women. Heckler was criticized by feminist groups, however, for her "rightto-life" position on abortion.

While in Congress Heckler also served on the House Committee on Agriculture, the Committee on Veteran Affairs, and the Committee on Science and Technology. There are those who saw her support for such programs as home health care as an alternative to institutionalization and co-sponsorship of Arthritis Institute legislation as preparation for her cabinet position.

In 1982 Heckler lost her congressional seat due in large part to re-districting in Massachusetts. In 1983 President Reagan nominated Heckler to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. The department had the third largest budget in the world ($274 billion in 1984) and 142,000 employees. The vast array of problems and issues facing the prospective secretary included discouragement of smoking, ethical problems in medicine and biomedical research, protection of the rights of handicapped persons, the cost of health care, studies about Agent Orange, the resettlement of Indochinese refugees, and the funding and administration of ongoing social programs such as medicare and social security.

In a statement made during Senate confirmation hearings, Heckler posed two goals for her administration: "First, I want the Health and Human Services Department to focus more on long-range problems and long-range solutions. Second, I want to be a catalyst for caring in America: for the young, the elderly, the sick, the handicapped and the needy."

During her two years as Secretary, however, Heckler was criticized for her inability to delegate authority, her combative personal style, and—by conservatives—for her liberalism. Supporters pointed out that her efforts toward reform were consistently hampered by budget cuts and by repeated attempts by the Office of Management and Budget to dictate Health and Human Services policy. Secretary Heckler targeted significant health problems such as AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, and breast cancer for research and commitment of departmental resources.

In 1984, Heckler divorced her husband in a highly publicized divorce trial which brought to light the strains put upon marriage by public life. John Heckler initially sued for divorce, claiming that his wife "deserted and abandoned" him twenty years previously; and Margaret Heckler, in a counter-suit, claimed a share of her husband's business since it had benefitted by her political connections in Washington.

In October, 1985, President Reagan asked Heckler to resign her Cabinet position and appointed her Ambassador to Ireland. Many felt Reagan was influenced in his decision by White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan, a critic of Heckler's performance at Health and Human Services. Heckler, who frequently spoke of her Irish descent, was seen as a suitable candidate for the ambassadorship.

Margaret Heckler's post as Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland lasted from December, 1985, until August, 1989. She retired from political office but maintained her affiliations with the Catholic Women's College Alumnae Association and the American Bar Association from her home in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Advertisement

Further Reading on Margaret Mary O'Shaughnessy Heckler

Biographical profiles of Margaret Heckler can be found in Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members (1973); Peggy Lamson, Few Are Chosen (1968); Esther Stineman, American Political Women: Contemporary and Historical Profiles (1980); and Judith Paterson and Lavinia Edmunds, "Cabinet Member Margaret Heckler: Reagan's Answer to the Gender Gap," Ms. (July 1983).