Collins, 81, got into politics after her husband, Congressman George Collins, died in a plane crash in December 1972. She won a special election six months later in June 1973. Democratic party leaders wanted her to be a placeholder until the next general election.
"She wasn't interested in that. She took it and she kept it," Mike McKeon, political strategist, said. "She didn't mind a fight she wanted a fight. She liked a fight that was in her spirit, her nature."
She served from 1973 to 1997. She was the first African-American woman elected to congress in the Midwest.
She was widely regarded as one of the nation's great feminist lawmakers. Her efforts to help women included a resolution in Congress to pressure publicly-funded schools to enforce Title Nine, which guarantees female students access to their own athletic programs.
"She opened up sports for girls completely," Delmarie Cobb, political consultant, said. "Another one that I think of is when she took on Medicare in terms of reimbursing women for post-mastectomy surgery."
In the 1983 city elections, Collins supported white incumbent Jane Byrne over Harold Washington. Washington became the city's first African-American mayor.
"There were people who had allegiances and alliances prior to him running and they kept those allegiances and alliances until he actually became the nominee," Cobb said.
Collins served 12 terms in Congress, or 24 years. In 1997, the U.S. Postal Service renamed Chicago's main post office in her honor.
Collins died of natural causes. She had been ill for several years, and living in a Washington, D.C. nursing home.