Margaret Heckler

Margaret Heckler
15th United States Secretary of Health and Human Services
In office
March 9, 1983  December 13, 1985
President Ronald Reagan
Preceded by Richard Schweiker
Succeeded by Otis Bowen
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 10th district
In office
January 3, 1967  January 3, 1983
Preceded by Joseph Martin
Succeeded by Gerry Studds
19th United States Ambassador to Ireland
In office
January 30, 1986  August 20, 1989
President Ronald Reagan
George H. W. Bush
Preceded by Robert Kane
Succeeded by Richard Moore
Member of the Massachusetts Governor's Council
from the 2nd district
In office
January 3, 1963  January 3, 1967
Governor Endicott Peabody
John Volpe
Preceded by Abraham Kahalas
Succeeded by John Craven
Personal details
Born Margaret Mary O'Shaughnessy
(1931-06-21) June 21, 1931
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political party Republican
Alma mater Albertus Magnus College
Boston College
Religion Roman Catholicism

Margaret Mary Heckler (born June 21, 1931) is a Republican politician from Massachusetts who served in the United States House of Representatives for eight terms, from 1967 until 1983 and was later the Secretary of Health and Human Services and Ambassador to Ireland under President Ronald Reagan. After her defeat in 1982, no woman would be elected to Congress from Massachusetts until Niki Tsongas in a special election in 2007.

Early life

She was born Margaret Mary O'Shaughnessy in Flushing, New York. Her undergraduate studies began 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 admitted to the bar in Massachusetts. She had also been editor of the Annual Survey of Massachusetts Law.

From 1963 to 1967, Heckler served as Governor's councilor for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1964 and 1968 and was elected as a Republican to the 90th through the 97th Congresses (January 3, 1967 – January 3, 1983).

Heckler received an Honorary Doctorate from Johnson & Wales University in 1975.

Congressional career

In Congress, Heckler was generally regarded as a “Rockefeller Republican” who supported moderate to liberal policies favored by voters in her state. In 1978, she launched and became co-chair 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 did not favor a constitutional amendment to ban it at that time. Later in life, Heckler has become a speaker and activist for pro-life causes.

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; columnist Jack Anderson called her Margaret “I’d-walk-a-mile-for-a-camera” Heckler.

Electoral history

She 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, but was easily reelected thereafter.

Following the 1980 census, Massachusetts lost one of its congressional seats due to a slow-growing population. Heckler's district, at the time the only one in Massachusetts large enough to not need redistricting, was combined with that of freshman Democratic Rep. Barney Frank. While the district was numerically Frank's district—the 4th—geographically it was more Heckler's district. When the two ran against each other in 1982, Heckler began the race as a front-runner. Although she opposed Reagan on 43 percent of House votes, Frank successfully portrayed Heckler as an Reagan ally by pointing to her early support for his tax cuts (which she later retracted). Heckler also 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 20 percent margin.

Health and Human Services Secretary

Following 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. Although she had no experience in public health, she was confirmed on March 3, 1983 by an 82 to 3 vote in the Senate. The three dissenters were conservative Republicans, including Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

Early 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". The proceeding quote is from her opening letter in the report entitled, The Secretary's Report on Black and Minority Health. This report is also known as the Heckler Report. The Heckler Report provided the historical foundation for many reports thereafter and is often referenced as a landmark document for health disparity and health equity inquiry. See the full report here:

Dr Clarice Reid was a member of the 1985-1986 Taskforce on Black and Minority Health for the US Government that helped produce this report.[1]

As secretary, Heckler publicly supported the Reagan administration's more conservative views presiding over staffing cuts in the department as part of the administration’s spending reductions and was a frequent spokesperson on a wide array of public health issues, including the then-emerging AIDS crisis. It was very difficult for Heckler to get the topic of AIDS on the Cabinet meeting agendas, and she never once spoke about the epidemic with Reagan.[2]

While HHS secretary, 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".[3]

Public divorce saga

Heckler's tenure as secretary was also marked by a public soap opera that played out 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, where Margaret Heckler had moved, had jurisdiction in the case. John Heckler publicly criticized his wife for becoming a changed person after she entered politics, and cited "fear of life and limb and mental welfare" in his filing. Margaret Heckler disputed the claims, but declined to comment publicly.

Departure from Cabinet

Although Heckler stayed on in the Cabinet after Reagan's reelection and was widely regarded as an effective spokesperson, press accounts in late 1985 revealed that some White House and agency insiders regarded her as an ineffective manager. White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan reportedly pushed for Heckler's dismissal, but President Reagan told reporters "there has never been any thought in my mind to fire" her. Instead, she was appointed as ambassador to Ireland, with a $16,000 pay cut that prompted the press to ridicule Reagan's characterization of the situation as a "promotion." She was confirmed as ambassador in December 1985.

Ambassador to Ireland

In her new position, Heckler was credited as the driving force behind a $120 million U.S. grant to the International Fund for Ireland, an economic development organization. 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," according to the Washington Post. Her term concluded in August 1989.

On May 31, 1987, Heckler became the first woman to deliver the commencement address at the University of Scranton in the school's history.[4]


Margaret Heckler is a resident of Arlington, Virginia. Her papers are housed in the Burns Library at Boston College.


  1. 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 20 March 2015.
  3. Randy Shilts, And the Band Played On, page 345
  4. "Commencements; University of Scranton 1987". New York Times. 1987-06-01. Retrieved 2016-09-10.
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Joseph Martin
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 10th congressional district

Succeeded by
Gerry Studds
Political offices
Preceded by
Richard Schweiker
United States Secretary of Health and Human Services
Succeeded by
Otis Bowen
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Robert Kane
United States Ambassador to Ireland
Succeeded by
Richard Moore
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