Eddie Bernice Johnson

Trailblazing U.S. Representative, unrelenting promoter of women and people of color in STEM

Eddie Bernice Johnson, who retired last year as the oldest member of the U.S. House of Representatives after serving 15 terms, died December, 31, 2023. She is survived by a sister, a son, and three grandsons.

Born in Waco, Texas, in 1935, Johnson grew up in the segregated South and wanted to work in the medical field. She attended Saint Mary’s College in Indiana after learning there were no accredited nursing schools in Texas that she was allowed to attend. Upon graduation in 1955, she applied to work at the Veterans Administration hospital in Dallas. Hired sight-unseen by men who were surprised she was not white and male, she fought their blatantly racist and sexist treatment to maintain her position. She advanced to chief psychiatric nurse of the facility and helped establish its first union.

Barred by race from shopping freely at many of Dallas’s department stores, Johnson, along with a group of women, launched a boycott that led to a change of practices. Her unflinching activism mirrored changes across the country, including the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which enabled historically marginalized groups to participate in the political process.

In 1971, Democrats in Dallas County — then mostly white, conservative men — approved a districting map that effectively made it impossible for people of color to get elected. Johnson contributed to a grassroots effort to reverse the law. A court struck down parts of the map, creating a new district in which she eventually ran for office. She was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1972, the first Black woman from Dallas to win an election.

She helped establish the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, hosting meetings in her home. 

She helped establish the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, hosting meetings in her home. The caucus, which today has 20 members, focused on unions, factory safety, and schools serving minorities. Johnson pushed for women’s individual access to credit, the rights of victims of sexual assault, and the success of other women and Black candidates.

In 1986 she pursued and won a seat in the Texas state Senate. An open-minded negotiator, she worked across party lines to give minority-owned businesses access to government contracts. Again, she pursued and won a fight over unjust redistricting. In 1992 she sought and won election to the U.S. Congress from a district she helped create. While there she sponsored or co-sponsored 177 bills that became law.

The first registered nurse in Congress, Johnson joined the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, becoming the first woman and first Black person to chair the latter. In 2001 she became chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. A dogged advocate of the scientific basis for climate change, she became chair of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment in 2007.

In 2008 Johnson was the first-ever recipient of the Society of Women Engineers’ President’s Award, bestowed by FY08 SWE President Michelle Tortolani in recognition of her outstanding efforts toward diversity and inclusion in STEM.

She championed funding for science research and increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM education and careers. In one of her last major accomplishments, she contributed to the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, fighting to ensure the law included the STEM Opportunities Act and the Combating Sexual Harassment in Science Act, both of which she sponsored.

In November 2022, as Johnson was preparing to retire, SWE CEO Karen Horting, CAE, and SWE’s Washington representative Della Cronin attended the unveiling of a portrait of Johnson at the Rayburn House office building. SWE presented her with a second President’s Award for “significant contributions to sponsoring and supporting legislation to protect and advance women and girls in STEM.”

— Laurie A. Shuster, Editor-in-Chief

SWE archives; The Texas Tribune, June 22, 2022; the Associated Press, Dec. 31, 2023; SWE All Together blog; The Washington Post, Jan. 2, 2024; NPR, Dec. 31, 2023.