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The fifth season of the Levy Lecture Series kicked off its second year of virtual webinars on Jan. 5 with Jennifer Steinhauer, a seasoned New York Times reporter and author of “The Firsts,” billed as “the inside story of the women reshaping Congress.”
More than 400 people tuned in to listen to Ms. Steinhauer talk about the vibrant group of women who won elections in 2018 and entered as freshmen in January 2019. That year, 35 new women joined Congress; all but one were Democrats. They were “younger, more diverse, and more female,” Ms. Steinhauer said, and they made their impact felt right from the start.
The 116th Congress had the distinction of having the greatest number of female members ever in the legislative branch: 106 in the House of Representatives and 25 in the Senate. Ms. Steinhauer described these numbers as “a milestone at once momentous and paltry.”
These freshmen broke many barriers by running for and winning their seats; their diversity in life experience, age, ethnic background, and class made them ideal subjects for Ms. Steinhauer.
Still, without many more women legislators, their impact may lack punch. Former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder (D-CO), who came to Congress in the post-Watergate 1970s, lamented the dearth of newly elected women. She told Ms. Steinhauer, “But for all the great job they are doing, I think, ‘Oh my God, it’s 2019, and we are not even a full 25% of the House.’ You need critical mass in an institution to change it. The question is always, ‘What is a critical mass?’ I don’t think anyone thinks it’s 23%.”
Some of these “firsts” are known by cliquey nicknames. There is ‘the Squad’: Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA). Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, AOC, a former bartender, expert communicator was, at age 29, the youngest woman elected to Congress. She unseated a 10-term incumbent, Joe Crowley, in the Democratic primary. Rep. Tlaib is a Palestinian-American Muslim and community activist. Rep. Omar. a Somalian refugee, and naturalized American citizen, is the only other Muslim congresswoman. Rep. Pressley, a woman of color, is a 16-year veteran of the Boston city council who “crushed” her Democratic opponent by winning 58.6% of the vote.
Another group is the so-called “Badasses,” women with military service or national security backgrounds. This group includes Representative Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), a former CIA officer and Department of Defense official; Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), a former CIA official; Representative Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), a former Air Force officer; Representative Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot and federal prosecutor; and Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA), a 20-year Navy veteran.
Two of the firsts are Native Americans: Representative Sharice Davids (D-KS), an attorney and the first openly LGBTQ person to win a Congressional race in her home state; and Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM), an attorney, former small-business owner, single mother, former head of the Democratic Party of New Mexico, and now, newly nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to his Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior – another first.
Closer to home, there is Representative Lauren Underwood (D-IL), a former nurse who grew up in Naperville, who “at 32, had become the youngest person, first female, and first person of color to win her seat in the suburbs of Chicago, and the youngest Black woman ever in the House.”
From the West coast, one of the firsts is freshman Representative Katie Porter (D-CA), a Harvard Law School graduate, law professor, and the first Democrat elected to her seat in conservative Orange County. Rep. Porter soon became well known in part for her strategic use of teaching tools like white boards. Respected for her razor-sharp intellect and feared for her withering ability to ask questions that go directly to the heart of any topic. She relishes those that are complicated and involve unfair financial practices.
Former Representative Katie Hill (D-CA) is covered as well; she was a protégé of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) until her errors in judgment – going against newly passed House rules that prohibit having sexual relationships with staff members – led to the abrupt and premature end of her term.
Easy to talk to and smart, Ms. Steinhauer speaks with an authoritative command of her beat, Capitol Hill. She has covered the Hill for many years and understands how Congress works. She knows the people – the legislators, their staff members, and the people behind the scenes who make the place run.
She knows how to get around the hallways of power without getting lost, the all-important shortcuts that save time getting from point A to point B, and when and where to find a particular legislator she needs to interview. She doggedly follows these new representatives as they get acclimated to Congress and the ways of Washington, D.C. She gets to know their office staffs and their families, she sees them at committee meetings and at meetings with constituents at home, and she has in-depth, one-on-one conversations with them about their new job, life, and everything in-between.
The portrait she paints of these women is nuanced and complex as they grow into their new roles, and learn from successes, missteps, and failures.
Ms. Steinhauer spoke with a reporter while the voters in Georgia were going to the polls to select two Senators, essentially deciding the legislative fate of the Biden presidency. Political junkies across the country were riveted on the two Georgia races. Percolating alongside the Georgia election was the story of a group of Republicans who still had not accepted the outcome of the November election. These legislators were prepared to contest the certification of electoral ballots from certain states on Jan. 6.
It seems almost quaint in retrospect to think that the Georgia election would be the big story on Jan. 6, 2021. The insurrection that failed is an awful capstone to the freshmen Congresswomen studied in “The Firsts,” yet it emphasizes the importance of their presence in Congress and the urgency of learning about them.
An encore version of the discussion is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel, and “The Firsts” is available to purchase at local bookstores and to borrow at every public library.