Throughout much of her career, Ms. Heckler was a groundbreaking figure who often forged her way in law and politics as one of the few women in the male-dominated fields. In 1966, she unseated a former speaker of the House to win the Republican nomination for her district in suburban Boston.
She was the first woman elected to Congress in her own right from Massachusetts and, when she took office in 1967, was one of only 11 women in the U.S. House of Representatives.
During her 16 years in the House, Ms. Heckler championed women’s issues, including the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX, which barred sex discrimination in education. In 1977, she was a co-founder and co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues.
Her signature legislative achievement was the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which prohibited banks and lending institutions from denying loans, credit and other financial services based on sex or marital status.
As a Republican from Massachusetts, Ms. Heckler often held positions that could typically be called liberal. Other than a long-held opposition to abortion rights, she had a voting record that was often out of step with her increasingly conservative GOP colleagues.
She often voted against military spending bills and opposed President Richard M. Nixon’s conduct of the war in Vietnam. She also spoke out against Nixon’s veto of day-care legislation, calling it “a serious setback to the concept of child development.”
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Throughout the 1970s, Ms. Heckler was a leading proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, an effort to enshrine equal rights for women in the Constitution. When the ratification process slowed in the late 1970s, she was a co-sponsor of resolution to extend the deadline for states to approve the measure. She continued to argue in favor of the ERA at the 1980 Republican National Convention, even as her party grew less receptive to liberal views. (In the end, the ERA was not adopted.)
After redistricting, Ms. Heckler lost her congressional seat in 1982 to Democrat Barney Frank. Although she voted against the Reagan administration’s positions more than any other Republican member of Congress, she was promptly nominated to became Reagan’s second secretary of Health and Human Services, after the resignation of Richard S. Schweiker. She was confirmed in March 1983, after saying in her hearings, “I want to be a catalyst for caring in America.”
At HHS, Ms. Heckler managed a department with 145,000 employees and a budget of about $300 billion. She was among the first high-ranking members of the Reagan administration to call for additional federal funding for AIDS research and treatments, calling it the country’s “number one health priority.”
She also expanded research into the growing problem of Alzheimer’s disease. After White House counselor Edwin Meese publicly doubted whether hunger was a serious problem, Ms. Heckler addressed a group of homeless people, saying, “You have as much right to dignity and respect as anyone in this society.”
Ms. Heckler ran into problems, however, on two fronts. First, her views were seen as too liberal by some conservative members of Congress and the White House, who wanted to rein in spending on Social Security and other programs.
Second, she and her husband went through a messy, headline-grabbing divorce. During the 1984 electoral season, her husband of 31 years, John M. Heckler, sued for divorce, saying he was “in fear of his life and limb and mental welfare.”
His lawyers charged that Ms. Heckler had put her career ahead of their marriage and that their largely separate lives forced her husband “to a life of either celibacy or adultery.” When the divorce was complete in 1985, the court records were sealed.
First lady Nancy Reagan was reportedly displeased by the airing of the Hecklers’ dirty laundry. Ms. Heckler also cited a “campaign against me by some members of the White House staff” — principally, Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan — over what some called her indecisive management style.
Despite supportive words from the president, Ms. Heckler was eased out of her job as HHS secretary in October 1985 and offered the job of U.S. ambassador to Ireland. She served in that position until 1989.
Margaret Mary O’Shaughnessy was born June 21, 1931, in the Flushing section of Queens to Irish immigrants. Her father was a hotel doorman, her mother a homemaker.
A talented pianist in her youth, Ms. Heckler became drawn to politics as a student at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn., when she was elected to a statewide student legislative group.
“Up to that time, all I had ever dreamed about was being a concert pianist,” she later said.
She was the only woman in her law school class at Boston College, graduating in 1956. While raising her family and practicing law, she served on an advisory council to the governor.
In 1966, Ms. Heckler defeated 42-year incumbent Joseph W. Martin Jr., a former speaker of the House, in the Republican primary. She quoted from a speech Martin gave when he was first elected in 1924, saying a congressional seat was “a position for one in vigorous health if the people are to be adequately served.”
Ms. Heckler’s survivors include three children, Belinda Mulliken of Santa Clara, Calif., Alison Heckler of Salisbury, Md., and John Heckler Jr. of Arlington, Va.; and four grandchildren.
After four years as U.S. ambassador to Ireland — where “I can take long walks, snatching breaths of the gorgeous Irish air,” she said — Ms. Heckler retired to Arlington. She received numerous honorary degrees and was a member of a variety of boards, including the National Alliance for Hispanic Health.
When she was in Congress, she kept a sign on her desk that read: “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”