Cardiss Collins, the first African American woman to represent the state of Illinois in Congress, died Feb. 3 at a Virginia hospital from complications of pneumonia following a stroke, a family friend said.

She was 81.

Collins originally was elected to fill the seat left vacant when her husband, Congressman George W. Collins, who represented what was then the 7th District, was killed in a 1972 airplane crash. For much of the 1980s, she was the only Black woman in Congress.

Although politics was not her first career choice, during the more than 24 years she served in Congress, Collins became a staunch advocate for her constituents and others in urban centers around the nation.
She led efforts to curtail credit fraud against women, advocated gender equity in college sports and worked to reform federal child care facilities.

“I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former Congresswoman Cardiss Collins. As the first African American woman to serve in Congress from Illinois, and the second woman to serve as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congresswoman Collins paved the way for minority women in Congress. I will cherish the opportunity I had to know and work with her.”

For more than two decades, Congresswoman Collins served the people of Illinois with courage and dedication to the best interests of her constituents and our country.

A trailblazer and a true champion, she worked tirelessly on some of the most significant issues of our time including gender equality, and protecting the civil and economic rights of African Americans in her community,” said.

Born Cardiss Hortense Robertson in St. Louis, Mo., on Sept. 24, 1931, her family moved to Detroit. She attended Northwestern University and was a secretary, accountant and auditor for the Illinois Department of Revenue before she entered politics.

She married George Washington Collins in 1958 and campaigned with him during his races for alderman and Democratic Party ward committeeman. That gave her a taste of the political life, and when her husband was killed, Collins eventually accepted the suggestion that she campaign for the seat to represent the largely Black district on Chicago’s West Side.

Inherently shy and reserved, Collins eventually found her voice in Congress and became the impetus behind various pieces of legislation aimed at helping the low-income.

She pushed through legislation in 1990 expanding Medicare coverage for mammography screening for older and disabled women and introduced resolutions designating October National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. She wrote laws increasing safety labeling on toys, setting safety standards for bicycle helmets and expanding child care services for federal workers nationwide. She also sponsored several measures to make air travel safer.

Collins’ efforts were apparently well received by her constituents, who re-elected her with 79 percent of the vote in 1994, the last year she ran for office. She retired three years later.

Collins is survived by her son, Kevin and her granddaughter, Candice.