Margaret Heckler

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Margaret Heckler
United States Ambassador to Ireland
In office
January 30, 1986 – August 20, 1989
PresidentRonald Reagan
George H. W. Bush
Preceded byRobert F. Kane
Succeeded byRichard A. Moore
15th United States Secretary of Health and Human Services
In office
March 10, 1983 – December 13, 1985
PresidentRonald Reagan
Preceded byRichard Schweiker
Succeeded byOtis Bowen
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 10th district
In office
January 3, 1967 – January 3, 1983
Preceded byJoseph Martin
Succeeded byGerry Studds
Member of the Massachusetts Governor's Council
from the 2nd district
In office
January 3, 1963 – January 3, 1967
GovernorEndicott Peabody
John Volpe
Preceded byAlvin C. Tamkin
Succeeded byJohn Craven
Personal details
Margaret Mary O'Shaughnessy

(1931-06-21)June 21, 1931
New York City, U.S.
DiedAugust 6, 2018(2018-08-06) (aged 87)
Arlington, Virginia, U.S.
Political partyRepublican
SpouseJohn M. Heckler[1]
EducationAlbertus Magnus College (BA)
Boston College (LLB)

Margaret Mary Heckler (née O'Shaughnessy; June 21, 1931 – August 6, 2018) was an American politician and diplomat who represented Massachusetts's 10th congressional district in the United States House of Representatives from 1967 until 1983. A member of the Republican Party, she also served as the 15th United States Secretary of Health and Human Services from 1983 to 1985, as well as United States ambassador to Ireland from 1986 to 1989.

Early life[edit]

She was born Margaret Mary O'Shaughnessy in Flushing, New York. Her undergraduate studies began at Albertus Magnus in New Haven, Connecticut. She then studied abroad at the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, in 1952 and went on to graduate from Albertus Magnus College (B.A. 1953) and from Boston College Law School (LL.B. 1956). She was the only woman in her law school class. She was admitted to the bar in Massachusetts.[2] She was an editor of the Annual Survey of Massachusetts Law.

From 1963 to 1967, Heckler was the first woman to serve on the Governor's council for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1964 and 1968, and was elected as a Republican from the 90th to the 97th Congresses (January 3, 1967 – January 3, 1983).[citation needed]

Heckler received an honorary doctorate from Johnson & Wales University in 1975.[citation needed]

Congressional career[edit]

In Congress, Heckler was generally regarded as a "Rockefeller Republican" who supported moderate to liberal policies favored by voters in her state. Heckler voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.[3] In 1977, she launched and founded the idea of the Congresswoman's Caucus, a bipartisan group of 14 members focused on equality for women in Social Security, tax laws, and related areas. Heckler was also an outspoken advocate for and cosponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment. She opposed abortion but then did not favor a constitutional amendment to ban it. Later in life, however, Heckler became a speaker and anti-abortion activist.

In Massachusetts, she was noted for building an especially-effective network of constituent services that allowed her to breeze through several re-election bids in an overwhelmingly-Democratic state. In the capital, Heckler was noted as a socialite with a penchant for high fashion.[4]

In the House, she served on the Banking and Currency Committee as well as ranking member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee (1975–1983). She also served as ranking member of the House Beauty Shop Committee (1971–1979), replacing Representative Catherine May, who had been defeated for re-election.

Electoral history[edit]

Heckler won her first term in 1966 by defeating 42-year incumbent Republican Joseph W. Martin Jr., in the primary. Martin, then 82, had previously served as Speaker of the House and was 46 years older than Heckler. Heckler won the subsequent general election with just 51 percent of the votes but was easily re-elected thereafter.

Following the 1980 census, Massachusetts lost one of its congressional seats because of its population growth. Heckler's district, then the only one in Massachusetts large enough to not need redistricting, was combined with that of freshman Democratic Representative Barney Frank. The district was numerically Frank's district, the 4th, but it was geographically more Heckler's district. When both ran against each other in 1982, Heckler began the race as a frontrunner. Although she opposed Reagan on 43 percent of House votes, Frank successfully portrayed Heckler as a Reagan ally by pointing to her early support for his tax cuts, which she later retracted. She lost the support of the National Organization for Women because she opposed federal funding for abortion. She went on to lose the race by a larger-than-expected margin of 20%. After her defeat, no woman would be elected to Congress from Massachusetts until Niki Tsongas won a special election in 2007.

Health and Human Services Secretary[edit]

Heckler, second row on the far right, with the Reagan Cabinet in 1984

After her defeat, Heckler turned down several government jobs, including as an assistant NASA administrator, before Reagan nominated her to replace retiring Health and Human Services Secretary Richard Schweiker in January 1983. She was confirmed on March 3, 1983 by an 82-3 vote in the Senate. The dissenters were conservative Republicans Jesse Helms and John Porter East and moderate Republican Bob Packwood.[5]

Early on as secretary, Heckler commissioned the Secretarial Task Force to investigate a "sad and significant fact: there was a continuing disparity in the burden of death and illness experienced by Blacks and other minority Americans as compared with our nation's population as a whole," as she put it in her opening letter in The Secretary's Report on Black and Minority Health, also known as the Heckler Report. The report provided the historical foundation for many reports thereafter and is often referenced as a landmark document for health disparity and health equity inquiry.[6] Clarice Reid was a member of the task force that helped to produce the report.[7]

As secretary, Heckler publicly supported the Reagan administration's more conservative views, presided over staffing cuts in the department as part of the administration's spending reductions, and frequently spoke on a wide array of public health issues, including the emerging AIDS crisis. It was very difficult for Heckler to get the topic of AIDS on the Cabinet meeting agendas, and she reportedly never discussed the crisis with Reagan.[8]

Heckler repeatedly assured the American public that the nation's blood supply was "100% safe... for both the hemophiliac who requires large transfusions and for the average citizen who might need it for surgery."[9]

On January 21, 1985, Heckler became the first woman to be named designated survivor. She served in the role during the inauguration.

Public divorce saga[edit]

Heckler's tenure as secretary was also marked by scandal in the Washington press when her husband, John, filed for divorce in 1984. The episode was tinged by election-year concerns over the impact of the divorce on conservative voters and dragged on for months as the couple argued whether Massachusetts or Virginia, to where she had moved, had jurisdiction in the case.[10]

Departure from Cabinet[edit]

Heckler (at left), with Ronald Reagan meeting Mayor of Boston Raymond Flynn (c. 1984–1985)

During her time as Secretary of Health and Human Services, Heckler was criticized as an ineffective manager. Following the 1984 presidential election, White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan pressured Reagan, empowered by a landslide victory, to nominate Heckler as Ambassador to Ireland in November 1985.[11] The associated $16,000 pay cut prompted the press to ridicule Reagan's characterization of her reassignment as a promotion.[12] Heckler was confirmed by the Senate in a voice vote in December 1985.[13]

Ambassador to Ireland[edit]

As ambassador, Heckler played a crucial role in obtaining a US$120 million grant to the International Fund for Ireland, an economic development organization.[14] She was a frequent guest on Irish television programs and was "by all accounts an effective spokesperson for her government's policies on everything from Central America to international trade."[14] In February 1989, Heckler announced her intent to resign to pursue a private career,[15] and her term concluded in August 1989.

On May 31, 1987, Heckler became the first woman to deliver the commencement address in the history of the University of Scranton.[16] Heckler's papers are housed in the Burns Library at Boston College.


Heckler died at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Virginia, on August 6, 2018, at the age of 87.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Margaret Heckler, Lawmaker and Reagan Health Secretary, Dies at 87
  2. ^ O'Dea, Suzanne (2013). From suffrage to the Senate: America's political women: an encyclopedia of leaders, causes & issues. Grey House Publishing. ISBN 9781619251045. OCLC 839901907.
  4. ^ "Heckler to replace Schweicker". Detroit Free Press. January 13, 1983. Retrieved April 29, 2017 – via
  5. ^ "Voteview | Plot Vote: 98th Congress > Senate > 8". Retrieved 2023-11-11.
  6. ^ "Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Black and Minority Health: Volume I: Executive Summary". 1985.
  7. ^ Report of the Secretary's Task Force on Black and Minority Health (Volume 4, Part 1 ed.). Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. 1986. Retrieved March 20, 2015.
  8. ^ "Interviews - Margaret Heckler - The Age Of Aids - FRONTLINE - PBS". PBS.
  9. ^ Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On, page 345
  10. ^ "Hecklers Reach Divorce Accord". The New York Times. 14 February 1985. Retrieved 5 November 2023.
  11. ^ Cannon, Lou; Hoffman, David (2 October 1985). "Heckler's Ouster Shows Regan's Power". The Washington Post. Retrieved 5 November 2023.
  12. ^ "Remarks Announcing the Nomination of Margaret M. Heckler To Be United States Ambassador to Ireland and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters". The American Presidency Project. University of California, Santa Barbara. 1 October 1985.
  13. ^ "Senate Confirms Heckler as Ambassador to Ireland". Los Angeles Times. 17 December 1985. Retrieved 5 November 2023.
  14. ^ a b DeYoung, Karen (March 17, 1987). "MARGARET HECKLER, ALL EMERALD SMILES". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 20, 2018.
  15. ^ "U.S. envoy to Ireland to quit, change career". The Arizona Republic. AP. February 18, 1989. p. 6. Retrieved March 20, 2018 – via
  16. ^ "Commencements; University of Scranton 1987". New York Times. 1987-06-01. Retrieved 2016-09-10.
  17. ^ "Margaret M. Heckler, former US health services chief and ambassador to Ireland, dies at 87". Boston Globe. August 6, 2018. Retrieved August 6, 2018.


  • Jane Anderson. "Two Massachusetts Incumbents Fight for Single Seat in Congress." Miami Herald, October 17, 1982, pg. 5D.
  • Karen DeYoung. "Margaret Heckler, All Emerald Smiles", Washington Post, March 18, 1987, pg. D1.
  • David Hoffman. "Heckler Offered Irish Ambassadorship", Washington Post, October 1, 1985, pg. A1.
  • Stephanie Mansfield. "The Heckler Breakup", Washington Post, October 16, 1984, pg. B1.
  • Donnie Radcliffe. "The Women's Caucus", Washington Post, April 27, 1978, pg. B12.
  • Spencer Rich. "Heckler's Administrative Skills Called Inadequate for Agency", Washington Post, October 1, 1985, pg. A1.
  • Myron Stuck and Sarah Fitzgerald. "Senate Confirms Heckler." Washington Post. 03/04/1983. p. A13.

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 10th congressional district

Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by United States Secretary of Health and Human Services
Succeeded by
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by United States Ambassador to Ireland
Succeeded by