SACRAMENTO, Calif. – When Doris Matsui (search) announced plans last week to run for her late husband's seat in Congress, she chose the fastest and most historic route to Capitol Hill for women: being the widow of a man who was there already.
Since 1923, 44 women have gone to the House or Senate upon the death of a husband in office.
Matsui's husband, Rep. Robert T. Matsui (search), a Democrat who represented a Sacramento district for 26 years, died at 63 on Jan. 1 of a rare bone marrow disease. If Doris Matsui wins a special election this spring, she will join three other congressional widows on Capitol Hill, all of them in the House.
Matsui, a 60-year-old Washington lobbyist and former Clinton White House official, said her husband was among many who suggested she try to succeed him.
"It was a brief conversation during this very intense time. He said, `You'd make a wonderful member of Congress.' But he also said you have to feel it and do it for the right reasons. I want to continue his legacy and what he's done," she said. "But I want to blaze my own trail, too."
Since 1923, when California Republican Mae Ella Nolan (search) succeeded her late husband, John, in the House, deaths in Washington have propelled 36 widows to the House and eight to the Senate.
Though the phenomenon today accounts for only a few of the 79 women in Congress, it nonetheless remains one of the most assured, if woeful, paths to Capitol Hill.
"I tell people there are other ways you can be a member of Congress that's less painful," said Rep. Lois Capps, a California Democrat who in 1998 was elected to the seat of her late husband, Walter.
Matsui, like many congressional widows before her, came under immediate pressure to run for her husband's seat. She entered the race Jan. 12, asking "those who supported him to now support me."
The outpouring of public sympathy and quick, critical endorsements from members of her party, including House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, cleared the field of major challengers.
"Very few spouses ever lose," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Politically, "there's a huge advantage to being the widow."
California provided one of the few exceptions in 1999, when voters rejected Marta Macias Brown, running for the San Bernardino-area seat that had been held by her husband, Rep. George Brown.
In addition to Capps, the other congressional widows now in office are Mary Bono, a California Republican whose husband, former pop star Sonny Bono, was killed in a 1998 skiing accident, and Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican and former lobbyist who won her husband's seat in 1996 after he died of cancer.
Emerson, for her part, quickly immersed herself in issues important to her rural district, especially agriculture, and voters have since re-elected her four times.
"I knew I would win the election because of the sympathy vote," Emerson said of her first campaign. "But I also knew I had two years to prove myself."
And Capps, a nurse, carved out a niche in public health issues and has been re-elected three times.
Matsui's recent predecessors also include Missouri's Jean Carnahan, a Democrat who went to the Senate in place of her husband, Mel Carnahan. He was posthumously elected to the Senate after a plane crash just before Election Day 2000.
While 26 widows served just one term, others have gone on to long careers.
After the 1973 deaths of their husbands, Democratic Reps. Corrine "Lindy" Boggs of Louisiana and Cardiss Collins of Illinois spent 17 and 23 years in the House respectively. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, elected in 1940 after the death of her husband, Clyde, served 32 distinguished years in the House and Senate. She was the first senator to denounce Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1950, and she ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 1964.
For now, Matsui said, she is thinking only about serving out her husband's term, which started this month.
"Let's see what happens," she said. "Every two years you decide, and that's what I'm going to be doing."