Groundbreaking Rep. Cardiss Collins, the first African-American congresswoman from Illinois, died last Sunday of complications from pneumonia at a hospital in Alexandria, Va., according to a family friend. She was 81.

It was reported that Collins had been recovering from a stroke in a nursing home.

In 1972, when her husband, Rep. George W. Collins, was killed in a plane crash, Collins was elected to fill his seat in what was then the 7th District. At first she was reluctant to run for the position, but, as she later said, “I never gave politics a thought for myself. When people started proposing my candidacy right after the crash, I was in too much of a daze to think seriously about running.”

But run she did, and for nearly a quarter of a century, she would represent a section of Chicago’s predominantly Black West Side.

In fact, she served 12 consecutive terms for more than 20 years, often as the only Black woman in Congress.

“She was a quick study and became a forceful member of Congress,” said Rep. Danny Davis, who succeeded her in 1997 after she chose not to seek another term. “She was not a flame thrower, but when she spoke, she spoke with knowledge and authority.”

Collins, Davis added, “left a mark. The mark was the raising of urban issues in a significant way.”

Part of that significance is evident in her efforts to end credit fraud against women, her advocacy of gender equality in college sports and her work to reform federal child care facilities. Among her many duties was chairing the Government Activities and Transportation Subcommittee.

Born Cardiss Hortense Robertson in St. Louis, Mo., on Sept. 24, 1931, she moved to Detroit with her family for several years. She attended Northwestern University and was a secretary, accountant and auditor for the Illinois Department of Revenue before entering politics.

She married George Washington Collins in 1958 and campaigned with him in his races for alderman and Democratic Party ward committeeman. In 1970, her husband won a special election to fill a U.S. House seat made vacant by the death of Rep. Daniel J. Ronan. Two years later he was killed in a plane crash near Chicago’s Midway Airport.

It took her a while to learn her way around Congress, but by the middle of her first term, she was a member of the Committee on Government Operations (later Government Reform and Oversight). Perhaps with her husband’s death in mind, she worked to improve air travel safety and fought for stricter controls on the transportation of toxic materials. She eventually rose to the position of ranking Democrat of the full committee during the 104th Congress (1995- 1997). Collins also served on the Committee on International Relations (later Foreign Affairs) from 1975 to 1980, the District of Columbia Committee during the 95th Congress (1977-1979), and the influential Committee on Energy and Commerce (later Commerce) from the 97th through the 104th Congresses (1981-1997).

According to her website, Collins was unstinting in her support of equal opportunities for women in sports at colleges and universities. She introduced the Equality in Athletic Disclosure Act on Feb. 17, 1993. “The amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965 directed colleges and universities to publicize the rate of program participation by gender. In recognition of her commitment to gender equity in athletics, Collins was inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1994,” her website continued. “Collins also cosponsored the Universal Health Care Act and the Health Security Act in 1993 and urged the National Institutes of Health to focus on the health issues that concern minorities, since ‘little use has been made of studies on minority prone diseases despite the significant disproportionate array of health conditions.’ A longtime advocate of increasing breast cancer awareness, Collins drafted legislation to help elderly and disabled women receive Medicare coverage for mammograms and introduced a law designating October as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”

Citing her age as a factor, Collins decided not run for another term in 1997.

“I’m going to be 65 next year,” she said then, “and that’s the time many people retire.”

She returned to Chicago at the end of her final term and later moved to Alexandria, Va. Kevin is her only child.