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Margaret Heckler papers

Collection CA-1998-004: Margaret Heckler papers


  • Creation: 1953-1992
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1962 - 1989

Scope and Contents

These papers document the career of Margaret Heckler, U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Ambassador to Ireland. They contain correspondence, legislative files, scheduling files, photographs, speeches, audio and video recordings, clippings, ephemera, Republican Party materials, and personal materials. The papers date primarily from 1962-1989.

Series I contains campaign materials, clippings, correspondence, Council calendars and meeting materials, photographs, and press releases from Heckler’s first elected position on the Massachusetts Governor’s Council.

Series II documents Heckler’s eight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and includes extensive files from her work on the Agriculture, Joint Economic, and Veterans’ Affairs Committees, as well as materials on other legislation of interest to her. Also included are campaign materials, correspondence, district files, scheduling files, speeches, photographs, audio and video recordings, artifacts and ephemera, and materials highlighting Heckler’s involvement in Republican Party activities.

Materials from Margaret Heckler’s tenure as Health and Human Services Secretary are found in Series III and include briefings, budget proposals, Cabinet meeting minutes, correspondence, memos, photographs, press releases, speeches, subject files, and travel files. This series also includes briefings, speeches, and Convention materials from Heckler’s participation in President Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984.

Heckler left Health and Human Services in 1985 when she was appointed Ambassador to Ireland. Series IV contains materials from her four years in Dublin and includes correspondence, diplomatic cables, memos, scheduling files, travel files, and photographs relating to her social, political, and ceremonial engagements throughout Ireland.


Language of Materials

In English.

Restrictions on Access

Collection is open for research. Fundraising materials that name donors and donation amounts are closed, as are political patronage files that include resumes and letters of recommendation. Most audio and video recordings are not available for playback due to format impermanence and can not be reformatted by Burns Library at this time. Please let Burns Library Public Services know of your specific interest; when it becomes possible we will schedule reformatting. Some audio and video recordings have been digitally copied; all original media was retained, but may not be played due to format. Digital use copies can only be accessed in the Burns Library Reading Room.

The majority of the collection is stored offsite; advance notice is required for retrieval.

Restrictions on use

These materials are made available for use in research, teaching and private study, pursuant to U.S. Copyright Law. The user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, infringement of copyright and publication rights of reproduced materials. Any materials used for academic research or otherwise should be fully credited with the source. The original authors may retain copyright to the materials.

Biographical Note

Margaret Mary Heckler (née O’Shaughnessy) was born on June 21, 1931 in Flushing, New York to Irish immigrants. She graduated from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven in 1953 and met her husband, John M. Heckler, while running for Speaker of the House of the Connecticut Intercollegiate Student Legislature. John Heckler managed her campaign, which she won. Margaret Heckler then attended Boston College Law School, where she was the only woman to graduate in the class of 1956. She was admitted to the bar in Massachusetts and was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1962 Heckler was elected to the Massachusetts Governor’s Council, an advisory body to the governor, whose primary responsibility is to approve gubernatorial appointments, pardons, and commutations. In 1966, after two terms on the Governor’s Council, she chose to run for Congress against a 42-year veteran Congressman and former Speaker of the House, Joseph W. Martin, Jr. It was seen as a risky move by some members of her party, but Heckler defeated Martin to secure the Republican nomination. After winning the general election she was sworn in as only the eleventh woman in the 90th Congress, out of a total of 435 Representatives. Pursuing women’s rights legislation would become a hallmark of Heckler’s career in Congress. She was a staunch supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), fought for Social Security benefits for homemakers and widowed women, and championed affordable, safe child care for working mothers. She was also instrumental in passing the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which prohibited discrimination in credit transactions on the basis of sex or marital status, and was a co-founder of the Congresswomen’s Caucus. A moderate Republican, Heckler often supported positions that went against the more conservative wing of her party.

In addition to her work on women’s issues, Heckler was a vocal supporter of veterans’ health and education benefits throughout her sixteen years on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, from 1967-1983. She was particularly concerned about the physical and mental health challenges facing Vietnam veterans returning from combat. Heckler also worked on alcohol fuels legislation, food stamp amendments, and nutrition guidelines as a member of the Agriculture Committee from 1975-1980. Heckler represented the interests of her district, including industrial towns like Fall River and Taunton, by joining other Representatives on the New England Congressional Caucus, Textile Caucus, and Steel Caucus. After redistricting in 1980, Heckler lost the 1982 election to incumbent Democrat Barney Frank.

Although she had been a supporter of George H. W. Bush for president in the 1980 Republican primary, Heckler was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to replace retiring Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Richard Schweiker in early 1983. Having no medical training or public health experience, Heckler vowed to be a “catalyst for caring” at her Senate confirmation hearing, where she was introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy. During her short tenure at HHS she led the administration’s response to the AIDS epidemic and launched the Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health, which resulted in a landmark report on the differences in health outcomes of whites and minorities in America. In late 1985 Heckler was asked to resign as HHS Secretary and accept the post of ambassador to Ireland after criticism from White House officials about her management of the department and commitment to the administration’s conservative Republican values. She was sworn in as ambassador in December, 1985.

Heckler’s tenure in Ireland was generally deemed a success, despite her initial reluctance to accept the job. She promoted U.S. business interests and sought to increase American investment in the country. Her term concluded in August, 1989, eight months after President George H. W. Bush’s inauguration. After her retirement from public service Heckler returned to the U.S. to work with Catholic charities and pursue a private career.

Margaret Heckler died on August 6, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. She was 87.


Clymer, Adam. “Margaret Heckler, Lawmaker and Reagan Health Secretary, Dies at 87.” The New York Times, Aug. 6, 2018.

"Margaret Mary O'Shaughnessy Heckler." In Encyclopedia of World Biography Online. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1998.Gale In Context: Biography (accessed January 29, 2020).

Schudel, Matt. “Margaret M. Heckler, congresswoman, HHS secretary and ambassador, dies at 87.” The Washington Post, Aug. 6, 2018.


179.75 Linear Feet (156 containers)

295 Gigabytes (68 files with approximately 33 hours of audio and video)


These papers document the career of Margaret Heckler, U.S. Representative from Massachusetts, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Ambassador to Ireland. They contain correspondence, legislative files, scheduling files, photographs, speeches, audio and video recordings, clippings, ephemera, Republican Party materials, and personal materials.


The collection is arranged into four series based on the chronology of Margaret Heckler’s career: I. Massachusetts Governor’s Council; II. U.S. House of Representatives; III. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; IV. Ambassador to Ireland.

Series II U.S. House of Representatives is divided into nine subseries: A. Administrative; B. Artifacts and ephemera; C. Campaigns; D. Constituent services; E. Correspondence; F. Legislative; G. Personal; H. Public relations; and I. Republican Party.

Series III U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is divided into eleven subseries: A. Administrative; B. Artifacts and ephemera; C. Budget; D. Cabinet-level meetings; E. Correspondence; F. Personal; G. Public relations; H. Republican Party; I. Subject files; J. Task forces and initiatives; and K. Travel.

Series IV Ambassador to Ireland is divided into six subseries: A. Administrative; B. Correspondence; C. Notes; D. Post-ambassador files; E. Public relations; and F. Travel.


Gift of Margaret Heckler, 1994 and 2007.

Related Materials

Edward P. Boland congressional papers, CA.1998.003, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Tip O'Neill congressional papers, CA.2009.001, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Robert F. Drinan, SJ congressional papers, CA.1986.001, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Separated Materials

Published works associated with this collection have been transferred within the Burns Library and can be found in the Boston College Library catalog.

Margaret Heckler Papers
1953-1992 (bulk 1962-1989)
Katie Lamontagne
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the John J. Burns Library Repository

John J. Burns Library
Boston College
140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill MA 02467 United States