Barbara Vucanovich, a Nevada Republican who at 61 won election to the U.S. House of Representatives with the slogan, “What Congress needs is a tough grandmother,” and became an advocate for breast-cancer awareness during seven terms in office, died June 10 at an assisted-living facility in Reno. She was 91.
The cause was complications from a fall several months ago, said Patricia Cafferata, her daughter and the co-author of her 2005 memoir “Barbara F. Vucanovich: From Nevada to Congress, And Back Again.”
A “flamingo in the barnyard of politics” was how the late U.S. Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) affectionately described Mrs. Vucanovich, according to her memoir, when he successfully nominated her for Republican Party secretary in 1994.
Raised on the East Coast, she went to Nevada to obtain a divorce in the late 1940s, when other states had more stringent marriage laws. After the death of her second husband, she supported her five children by running a speed-reading school and travel agency. She also worked on political campaigns and was hired by Republican Paul Laxalt to manage his Reno office after his election to the U.S. Senate in 1974.
After Nevada gained a district through a congressional reapportionment, Laxalt persuaded her — over her initial reluctance — to seek the open seat in 1982. She won and became the first woman to represent her state in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Over the next 14 years, Mrs. Vucanovich represented nearly all of Nevada outside Las Vegas. She served on the Interior, Natural Resources and Appropriations committees, and she chaired the Appropriations subcommittee on military construction.
She helped shepherd bills that reversed the federal 55 mph speed limit and prohibited states from taxing former residents’ pensions and other retirement benefits. (The latter legislation benefited her constituents who had moved from other states to Nevada, which has no state income tax.)
She fought legislation that she considered detrimental to the mining industry and Nevada ranching, and she fought efforts to establish a Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
She drew considerable attention for her advocacy work on breast cancer and pushed for legislation to improve Medicare and Medicaid coverage of mammograms. Mrs. Vucanovich learned she had the disease when it was diagnosed during a routine physical given to new members of Congress.
“No doctor who had ever taken care of me had ever suggested that I have a screening,” she once said. “My feeling is that I don’t think a woman should have to be elected to Congress to find out about a routine mammogram!”
Mrs. Vucanovich said that there was some discord between her and other women in Congress because of her stance on abortion.
“I’m pro-life and willing to stand up and say so,” she told the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call. “I found that it became personal, which is too bad because you should be able to have differences without being disagreeable.”
She opposed the Family and Medical Leave Act — a measure signed by President Bill Clinton that required employers to give employees unpaid leave in certain circumstances — calling it “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” She said that it “would erode the very basis of democracy . . . by forcing employers to provide certain benefits to their employees.”
She was credited with helping formulate family policy proposals associated with the Contract With America, the platform on which the Republican Party won control of the House of Representatives in 1994. She took her post as party secretary after that election and retired two years later.
Barbara Farrell was born June 22, 1921, in what was then Camp Dix, N.J., and raised in New York state. Her father, retired Army Maj. Gen. Thomas F. Farrell, was second in command of the Manhattan Project. A brother died while serving in the military during World War II.
Her first marriage, to James Bugden, ended in divorce. Her second husband, Kenneth Dillon Sr., died in 1964 after 14 years of marriage. Her third husband, George Vucanovich, died in 1998 after 33 years of marriage. Michael Dillon, a son from her first marriage who took his stepfather’s last name, died in 1996.
Survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Patricia Cafferata of Reno; three children from her second marriage, Kenneth Dillon Jr. and Susan Anderson, both of Reno, and Thomas Dillon of Statesville, N.C.; a stepson, Craig Vucanovich of Reno; a brother; 13 grandchildren; and 19 great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Vucanovich was reported to have been the first great-grandmother to serve in the House of Representatives.