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A Champion for the Ages

Margaret Heckler, the pioneering law student, congresswoman, cabinet secretary, and ambassador, dead at 87.


Margaret Heckler, whose life’s mantra was “Work hard, study hard, and pray hard,” passed away August 6 at the age of 87. Hers was a lifetime of remarkable accomplishments, not least was being the first woman and second person from Boston College Law School to serve in the United States Congress.

In 2016, in what may well have been her last press interview, she talked to BC Law Magazine’s John Cunningham ’81.

Heckler told Cunningham that when she entered BC Law in 1953 she was not at all intimidated by the fact that she was one of only two women in her class (and the only woman to graduate in 1956). “I was always a great debater and I loved a challenge,” she recalled, “so I had no fear of going into law even though almost no women were doing it back then.”

Elected to Congress in 1966, Heckler was again in the minority as one of eleven women in the House of Representatives. She served eight terms as a Republican representative, was Secretary of Health and Human Services to Ronald Reagan for nearly three years, and Ambassador to Ireland for four years.

In Congress, she co-founded the Congressional Women’s Caucus and pushed for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, equal credit laws, Social Security enhancements for women spouses, and small business funding for women entrepreneurs.

Her proudest achievement as health and human services secretary, she said, was the HHS Heckler Report, a landmark study documenting disparities in health care affecting minorities. “This report left a lasting positive impact on our health care system, which still relies on this type of data today,” she explained. She also expanded funding for research into breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, and AIDS.

During her career, Heckler instituted efforts to expand hospice care, discourage smoking, resettle Vietnam refugees, and recognize the rights of disabled citizens. Though she had her political ups and downs, her motives were clear. “I thought that every wrong should be righted, and I went about trying to do just that,” she asserted.

The former Margaret Mary O’Shaughnessy, who was born in Flushing, New York, was inspired to take up the law after reading law books in the study of a neighbor and judge for whom she baby-sat as a teen. She came to Boston with her husband, John Heckler, to attend BC Law, where she became a friend to classmate Francis D. Privitera ’56.

Privitera, from an Italian immigrant family that came to America for a better life, may have seemed an unlikely pal for Heckler, but they became lifelong friends. Privitera found her to be smart, funny, and very persuasive, with one exception. She was a Republican, he a Democrat (“I came from the North End and the West End; we came from nothing, we didn’t have any Republicans there,” he said). Her mightiest effort to convert Privitera came when, on the eve of President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, in the ballroom housing the Massachusetts delegation, she whisked Reagan past former Massachusetts Governors John Volpe and Francis Sargent to the far end of the room where Privitera stood. “This is my classmate from Boston College Law School,” she said to Reagan. “Maybe you can help me get him to become a Republican.”

Before going to Washington, DC, Heckler was involved in state politics; she was the second woman elected to the Massachusetts Governor’s Council, for example (the first was Esther M. Andrews, appointed to fill a vacancy in 1927), and beat a 42-year Republican incumbent in the primary and eventually a Democratic opponent for her House seat in 1966. “She was the last of an era,” said BC Law Professor George Brown. “She is a sort of bridge to the time when we were a genuine two-party state, when there were a substantial number of Massachusetts Republicans in Congress, which makes her historically significant.”

The same could be said of Heckler’s part in BC Law’s Congressional legacy. Edward Boland, who attended BC Law, preceded her in Congress, but Dean Robert F. Drinan, SJ, and the alumni listed here chronologically by class year have served after her: Maurice J. Murphy Jr. ’53, Warren Rudman ’60, William Delahunt ’67, Edward Markey ’72, Robert “Bobby” Scott ’73, John Kerry ’76, Michael Capuano ’77, Paul Hodes ’78, Scott Brown ’85, Jared Huffman ’90, and Stephen Lynch ’91.

Read more in the New York Times and the Boston Globe.

John O. Cunningham ’81 contributed to this report.