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—The New York Times Book Review
“The Firsts stands out as one of the most important and best reported books written during the extraordinary political chapter in which we are living.”
—Nicolle Wallace, author and anchor, Deadline: White House on MSNBC
NOW WITH UPDATED EPILOGUE
In the November 2018 midterms, the greatest number of women in history were elected to Congress. It was a group diverse in background, age, experience, and ideology. From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “the Squad” to a group with national security backgrounds calling themselves “the Badasses,” from the first two Native American women
to the first two Muslim women, all were swept into office on a wave of grassroots support.
Here, New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer chronicles these women’s first year in Congress, following their shift from trailblazing campaigns to the daily work of governance. In committee rooms, offices, visits back home with their constituents, and conversations in the halls of the Capitol, she probes the question: Will Washington, with its hidebound traditions and overpriced housing and petty power struggles, change the changemakers? Or will this Congress, which looks a little more like today’s America, truly be the start of something new?
Vivid and smart, The Firsts delivers fresh details, inside access, historical perspective, and expert analysis as these women—inspiring, controversial, talented, and rebellious—do something surprising: make Congress essential again.
The New Arrivals
Yeah, we have to fix this shit.
—Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA)
On most days of the year, tourists stream through the National Statuary Hall, a resplendent room in the center of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Here, prominent American men, from Sam Houston to Thomas Edison, are celebrated with giant effigies, surrounded by colossal marble columns and ornate drapes. On the first Thursday of 2019, however, the august chamber felt like the bustling arrivals terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
New members of Congress, sworn in just an hour earlier, mingled with their excited families as they waited to have their photos taken in a chaotic mass of ill-formed lines controlled by barking security officers who could not yet recognize a single one of them. The most diverse Congress in history was on full display. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, her head covered in a festive orange scarf, clutched a string of pale prayer beads in one hand, her son Adnan's hand wrapped in the other. An entire family dressed in traditional Laguna Pueblo garb traipsed through toward the Capitol Rotunda, trying to keep up with Deb Haaland of New Mexico. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, a former CIA operative, stood with her three daughters, who were dressed in identical blue-and-gold-flecked fancy frocks, the same ones the girls wore the night their mother defeated a Republican Tea Party incumbent after a brutal race. Small children in velvet dresses with itchy crinolines, overly large suits, or African-print pants clung to parents. Exhausted, at least one curled up on the floor by a statue of Brigham Young.
Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, in a cranberry-colored thobe, the native dress of Palestine, pushed a wheelchair carrying her mother, who fretted in Arabic about the jacket she had left back in Tlaib's new office. "It's an office, Mom. Nothing is going to happen to it!" Tlaib said. As they made their way through the Capitol, Iowa's senators, Republicans Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, swept by. "Who is that?" Tlaib's mother asked. Her daughter, a brand-new representative, shrugged. She had no idea.
Just shy of a century after women were granted the right to vote, the 116th Congress boasts the greatest number of female members ever: 106 women in the House of Representatives and 25 in the Senate, a milestone at once momentous and paltry. Democrats were ebullient, having retaken the House after eight years in the minority, picking up forty new seats, a bit more than 60 percent of them filled by women. In all, thirty-five new women joined Congress in 2019—including two who won in special elections—and all but one was a Democrat. Beyond gender, 22 percent of the House and Senate in 2019 were members of racial or ethnic minorities, a percentage that has steadily increased over the last decade. The new House class tilted younger and less wealthy, too.
This younger, more diverse, and more female legislative branch would become immediately consequential. The members would alter the way that representatives and senators communicate with each other and the outside world, and how policy debates would be framed. So long a hermitage from the social and economic upheavals in American life, Congress would soon become their fulcrum, with racial, ethnic, class, and generational conflicts a central narrative. Deep divisions over the direction and future of the Democratic Party would surface between the new generation of progressives, eager to push the party to the left, and centrists, who thought moderation was the key not only to the party's survival, but also to getting rid of Republican president Donald Trump.
Two women in particular, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), at twenty-nine the youngest woman ever to serve, and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), one of the first Muslim women ever elected, would in short order dominate the national political discourse, unheard of for freshman lawmakers in general and women in particular, who historically had not arrived in Washington, DC, armed with self-assurance, outspoken views, and millions of followers. The new women would upend conventional political and legislative conversations and challenge notions of comity in a body where duplicity and spuriousness had long been concealed by quaint rules governing acceptable speech. They would face off with their colleagues and their leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the first woman to be Speaker of the House and one of only seven Speakers to hold the gavel in nonconsecutive terms. Within months of taking their seats, the freshmen would spar directly with the president himself, who would attempt to use the women as tools to demonize the newly empowered Democrats as politically dangerous and to starkly cleave the nation over questions of race and belonging. In short, the story of "the Firsts," while still being written, would mark a historical turning point both for Congress and for American women.
This day of elation for Democrats also represented a tumultuous new beginning for many men in Congress, who had just spent the last year in a state of thinly disguised terror as House women led a movement to change the process for handling sexual harassment claims on Capitol Hill. On the one hand, some of the more liberal men were careful to wax on about how thrilled they were to have these exciting new women in Congress. But several months later, even they would let it be known to House leadership that they were sick of hearing about them. "The men wanted us to know they were still in charge," one senior female Democrat, unamused, told me some months later.
And before this historic day was over, the freshmen had made it clear they were a new voice in town. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) startled her colleagues—and stepped on Pelosi's message of a restrained and temperate new House—by announcing to supporters that she was going to "impeach the motherfucker," foreshadowing the protracted debate among Democrats over how to handle President Trump, which would eventually result in an impeachment showdown.
The new members arriving on Capitol Hill in January of 2019 found themselves in the oddest of work spaces. On most Wednesdays when Congress is in session, tourists parade through the Rotunda, their necks craned toward its spectacularly domed ceiling. Groups who have convened for lobbying "fly-in days" cram the hallways and cafeterias of House and Senate office buildings—one day, it's the vision-impaired, tapping canes along the floor; another, it is medical students in white jackets, mainlining Dunkin' Donuts. Sometimes, it's presidents of children's museums; another time, it's dairy lobbyists toting ice cream. I recently saw a group in medieval garb; I have yet to unpack that one. Occasionally, a dog will scamper down a hallway, escaping its human, perhaps a member (or more likely an aide) preparing to take it for a walk.
Some elevators house emergency black rotary-dial phones from the Mad Men era. Mail slots exist in no small number. There are secret passageways and spots of lore, including a set of marble stairs in the House wing of the Capitol still stained with the blood of congressman-turned-lobbyist William Taulbee of Kentucky, who was fatally shot in 1890 by Charles Kincaid, a newspaper reporter who had implicated Taulbee in an extramarital affair. Along myriad bleak cement corridors are cafeteria kitchens, offices that fulfill requests for American flags, and nondescript doors that look like they conceal custodial closets but actually lead to hearing rooms, perhaps containing the maple desk of a long-dead famous lawmaker, or hideaways where members can take meetings near the floor of the House. It is a place at once regal and utterly prosaic, with government-issued office chairs and scores of sets of mahogany furniture, too.
On any given moment, my colleagues and I, the bearers of the coveted plastic press pass that gives us access to the majority of the Capitol, might smack into a craftsperson about to fix a priceless painting, or a culinary worker fixing lunch for a sultan or the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. A member may say, "Hi, I'm Elaine," but we understand to still address her as "Congresswoman," and someday, perhaps, "Madam Chair."
The vast majority of the new women were just starting to navigate these twisted passages (Tlaib, seeing me in a basement hallway, once looked at me with bewilderment and shyly asked for directions to a House Oversight Committee hearing); the daily use of bizarre procedural language ("Pursuant to clause 12(a) of rule I, the Chair declares the House in recess until 2 p.m. today"); and the endless string of buzzing sounds heard through the Capitol (two buzzes means it is now time for a fifteen-minute vote by electronic device; four buzzes, adjournment of the House). These freshmen seemed in a state of perpetual if mild disorientation.
Many found that congressional conventions were more traditional than practical. Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), a law professor from Orange County, California, recalled being baffled by the process of voting for the party's leaders by filling out a ballot on a piece of paper procured on one side of a large room, then trudging across the crowded floor, squeezing like a subway commuter past her new colleagues, and casting it in a box on the other side. She and a fellow female freshman whom she had just met rolled their eyes at the antiquated spectacle. "Yeah," Porter said. "We have to fix this shit."
Of course, the class of 2019 was not the first to storm Washington seeking broad institutional change after a period of political trauma. The House class of 1974, elected right after the Watergate scandal, also came in with youth, idealism, and an appetite for disruption. Those ninety-three freshmen "represented a new breed of politician," wrote former senior congressional staff member John A. Lawrence in his book, The Class of '74, "born of an age of political turbulence, hardened by political struggles, willing—even eager—to challenge authority, and devoted to pursuing new policy objectives." But that class was almost exclusively white and male.
In the 2018 midterms, most of the new Democrats campaigned and won fueled by the power of an incandescent collective rage that had been ignited by the election of Trump and fanned by the policies of a Republican-controlled Congress that year. In the 2017 report The Trump Effect, political science scholars Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox found that about one quarter of the female Democrats who became interested in running for office that year started thinking about it only after Trump was elected. "It's hard to overstate Democratic women's dismay with the president," they wrote. "When asked whether they'd rather have a colonoscopy or a private lunch with Trump, more than half of female Democrats chose the colonoscopy. But that's not all. More than a quarter of Democratic women would rather spend a night in jail than at the Trump White House. Republicans' reactions are far less negative, but notice that almost 20 percent of Republican women said that seeing Trump on the news makes them sick, too."
Donald Trump had, after all, sought victory in part through division, and in the 2018 midterms, Americans clapped back. "It's not about diversity; it's about the fact that finally we are starting to become more representative. There's a difference," Mae Jemison, the first female African American astronaut, said at a Martin Luther King Day breakfast in Saint Paul, as Omar, once a Somali refugee, looked on. "This representation is not a nicety; it's a necessity."
This biggest class of women in history contained all sorts of firsts: the first two Muslim women; the two first Native American women; the first female members of Congress from their state or district, or the first black or Latina from their state or district, or the youngest, or a combination of those. They came with disparate résumés—community organizers, air force pilots, CIA officers, entrepreneurs, a once-homeless National Teacher of the Year award recipient, and state and municipal lawmakers, along with that now-famous former bartender known as AOC, so inspiring to young girls across the United States that at the swearing-in, I watched a few Republican members abashedly accompany their kids across the House floor to meet her. Some freshmen brought a millennial perspective and irreverent style. Others were middle-aged, with impressive, even monumental, accomplishments from their pre-congressional lives. The oldest freshman, Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL), had been a cabinet secretary and the president of a university.
All of their campaigns were rooted in authentic messages delivered by candidates who, a decade ago, might have tried to hide what they now put on full display: Deb Haaland talked struggles with alcoholism. Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN) discussed growing up in a trailer park, and did not hide her wife and four kids, even in her conservative district. Katie Porter talked openly about having experienced domestic abuse, and her fear of losing her children. The women with national security backgrounds volleyed between showcasing their tough sides, an outgrowth of intense military training and wartime deployments, and their roles as Girl Scout troop leaders.
At least one senior male Democratic official was overwhelmed by the significance of the moment and the cultural shift in his own political lifetime. As a young aide in the early 1970s, he told me, he was standing in the cloakroom off the House floor—a space where members go to relax, chat, and file bills—when he witnessed an older congressman lying on a couch, relaxing between votes. Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-CO), then a new congresswoman, walked in. "Are you looking for a seat?" the congressman said, pointing to his wrinkled face. "How about here?"
That kind of egregious behavior may largely no longer exist, but its ghosts are plenty close by. In my roughly decade on and off Capitol Hill as a reporter for the New York Times, I have listened as women shared stories of elderly male senators flirting with them, about male members of the Senate who questioned why a female fellow member was using the Senate elevator, and in the case of former senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), about the sergeant at arms who asked her to leave her own desk on the first day she entered the Senate chamber, because the chamber was "for senators only." I heard from one senator that Senator John McCain (R-AZ) hurled so many insults at her (while ignoring her male counterpart who had cosponsored the legislation that had so infuriated the often-crabby senator) that she had to call her mother to regroup. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) recounted in her own book the time she was told not to lose too much weight by a certain senator from Hawaii, because, he said, "I like my girls chubby." A few weeks into her term, Kyrsten Sinema, a freshman Democratic senator from Arizona decked out in a hot-pink dress and metallic spike heels, was stopped by Capitol police, who asked her if she had any ID. "She's a senator," barked her male aide. Others recounted a story to the press about a male colleague who made a sexual innuendo about one-minute floor speeches that stunned the colleagues who surrounded her, just three months after an orientation session on office sexual-harassment liability.
Summer camp, middle school, or a new job: everyone needs a posse. It's no different in Congress. Many of the women of the 116th Congress quickly fell into distinct cliques—the most famous of which is "the Squad," made up of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley—and those friendships would soon prove to be their salvation as they made the challenging transition into public life, one many of these trailblazers were not quite ready to bear.
This book is their story as I followed them during most of their first year: I watched them on and around the House floor, where they argued about bills, gossiped about their families, and occasionally straightened each other's flyaway hairs or errant lapels in between votes. I sat through long committee hearings, during which they would sometimes land a forceful punch against an administration official or bank executive. I visited with them back home, meeting their kids, listening to their phone calls with constituents, and trailing along for what seemed like endless tours of medical centers. I sat with them in their offices at the end of long days as the sun slid behind the Washington Monument and they mulled a policy move or discussed a colleague who had disappointed them. I noticed their forgotten dry-cleaning receipts and lipstick emergencies and tiny tattoos (congresswomen—they're just like us!), along with their frantic staff trying to keep up as they rattled off orders (So maybe not exactly like us.).
The questions facing these women were not so unlike those faced by Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R-MT), the first woman elected to Congress, or Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), the first black woman in Congress, or any other woman who has ever run for Congress to alter the status quo: Would they change Washington, or would Washington—with its power struggles, and Sunday talk shows, and $250-a-head fundraisers with lemon-drop cocktails at Charlie Palmer's, overpriced housing, and petty disputes over who stands where at a press conference—change them? Would the window of good intentions remain open before the realities of American politics shut it for the next election?
Perhaps more profound: What would the long-term impact of 2018 be? Did the election of a gay Native American woman in Kansas, and a black woman in a nearly all-white suburb of Chicago, and a Hispanic woman in a heavily Republican border region of New Mexico represent a real shift in US politics? Or was this just a short-lived reaction to President Trump? Would issues like health care and pay equity give new coherence and meaning to our body politic, transcending boundaries of race, gender, and sexual identity forever? Or would this group end up as brazen and out for themselves as anyone? Could they shift a culture in which members find no shortage of terrain on which to strut and clash with others—over whose name is at the top of a letter to a cabinet official, who gets credit for saving an air base or getting a childcare bill passed, or who gets called to the White House for a meeting, even for a browbeating? Members from the same delegation and party have been known to not speak for weeks as the result of such zero-stakes squabbles. Would the new women, largely dedicated to a social and political theory that relies on uplifting other women, break through?
The life of reporters who work the Capitol entails many, many steps each day as we race from the Senate to the House in search of lawmakers and hearings on the Hill. Still, during long days of traversing the Capitol, I often stop to stare at the portraits of the few women hanging there, trying to imagine the click of the heels of these exalted lawmakers on the tile floors beneath me. When no one is looking, I sometimes give them a tiny prayerful namaste bow. Who in this class of women would become the legislative and cultural descendants of those very first female lawmakers, I wondered. Who would have staying power, and who would be gone in two years?
Longevity in the era of twenty-four-hour news and nonstop social media feeds has taken on new meaning. Indeed, before the year was even over, one high-profile female freshman would resign amid a scandal that would underscore the naivete of many of the new members, who believed that their sheer will and unusual biographies would be an equal match for the unforgiving nature of Washington and the desires of its denizens to ruin others. Many of them would learn the hard way that a new generation's campaign tools—Twitter, texting, and photo documentation of life—could be weaponized against them in the most conventional of ways. Even the most promising of newcomers would find themselves at times in a job they were not quite prepared for in full.
On the afternoon of Trump's first State of the Union address to the new Congress in February, a large group of women in white clothing gathered on a circular staircase for a portrait in celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of women's right to vote. "One more, one more!" yelled a congresswoman as harried colleagues in white vests, gowns, and business suits rushed in from meetings to join the festive scene.
Just before this gathering, a smaller group of women, most of them senior House members who had spent years vying for their power, held a press conference to celebrate female achievement over the last century. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), one of only two freshmen invited to join, came to the mic in her long, stylish snow-colored coat, her lips bright red, her voice more powerful than the previous speakers. Already a force in the class of 2019, she nodded to the past, while very much trying to author the future. "We have the conviction," she boomed. "We have the political courage." And, she said, "We have each other."
French Heels, Kidney Punches, and the Dead Husbands' Club
Which senator's wife is that?
—Unnamed Capitol Hill reporter
Even before Kyrsten Sinema, the first female senator from Arizona, was sworn in, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota felt she needed to deal with her new colleague's shoulders.
Women had recently rebelled against the prohibition of bare arms on the House floor, which prevented female members from wearing sleeveless dresses even in the sweltering heat of a Washington, DC, summer. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) finally lifted the ban in 2017. On the Senate side of the Rotunda, however, strict dress codes remained intact: no shorts or skirts above the knee; jackets and ties for men; and for women, while the no-pants rule had long ago been shed, they still had to keep their shoulders covered. Sinema, a triathlete who favored sleeveless shifts on the campaign, needed to be allowed to wear what she wanted in Washington, Klobuchar reasoned, and as the most senior senator on the Senate Rules Committee, which oversees the rules for the Senate floor, it would be up to her to appeal to the largely male leadership of the Senate to make it happen.
"This is now professional attire, and this is a modern discussion," she explained to the committee that January. Another senator asked why she couldn't just don a sweater, but Klobuchar framed the ban as impinging on all women's rights to dress as they liked. Some of the male senators seemed uncomfortable with the conversation; one placed a folder over his face, and another grumbled, "The world is crumbling around us, and we are talking about sleeveless dresses!"
Klobuchar, whose will can be formidable, prevailed. Sinema showed up for her swearing-in wearing stilettos, a bejeweled tank top, and a formfitting skirt splattered with a giant pink rose, but she donned a gray fur stole on the floor, perhaps out of respect for Klobuchar, who had quietly counseled her to ease into the sleeveless look. Bounding through the Capitol with her Marilyn Monroe–shaded hair, which had replaced her sensible campaign bob, the openly bisexual Sinema, with her hand on the Constitution, took the ceremonial oath, administered, with some visible discomfort, by conservative Republican vice president Mike Pence. (Officially, senators are permitted now to "self-enforce" their own dress code, while staff members must follow the dress code rules, according to a spokesman for the majority leader's office.)
Although it may seem trivial, the restrictions around what women wear on the Hill—and the fact that they have been enforced by what are effectively morality officers—have rankled women almost since they arrived in Congress. From cluck-clucking about lace and pastel-colored dresses early on to the fight to wear pants, to the argument for exposed arms, women have often pushed for more fashion autonomy. Men are also required to dress for business, and former House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), whose affinity for a hotel-room iron was rivaled only by his love for a nine iron, was known to issue occasional starchy reproaches, using his "I will turn this car around!" voice to chastise members for wearing jeans or improper footwear on the floor. After then-Speaker Paul Ryan capitulated on the matter of sleeves, House women still maintained a fairly conservative manner of dress, although they often acknowledge political and other causes through "color days," which would be familiar to anyone who participated in spirit weeks in high school.
Now, the diversity of the freshman class has ushered in a new era of style. Deb Haaland, one of the two first Native American women in Congress, elected in 2018, mixes turquoise and silver with classic suits. Ilhan Omar, whose first impact on Congress was to change the rules around religious headwear, brings an endless array of chic headscarves. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez alternates between her signature red lipstick and oversized pink suit or simple black pants, when on the Hill, and her social-media look of owl-eye glasses adorning a makeup-free face, giving her the vague air of a teenager about to curl up with Go Ask Alice. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS) keeps a fetching collection of lapel pins in her office, which she rotates through; the Frida Kahlo one is especially impressive. Several women choose to wear their member pins on necklace chains, rather than pierce their clothes with their round little badges of power, and hand their necklaces off to the staff during TV standup hits so they will not get tangled in the mics.
Sinema, whose spokeswoman has explained that her politically careful boss "does not want to be known as the first female anything, only for what she does for the people of Arizona," would continue to bust sartorial boundaries as soon as she joined the Senate. As a result, one reporter confessed to me that during the first week of the new Senate he asked colleagues, "Which senator's wife is that?"
The right of women on the Hill to dress as they wish and to gain access to basic amenities like convenient bathrooms and the use of the members' gym and swimming pools, as well as to more significant achievements like substantive committee assignments and, ultimately, a shot at the Speaker's gavel, was the result of painstaking battles fought for centuries. Indeed, these battles began even before all American women had the right to vote.
Jeannette Rankin became the first female member of Congress in 1917, three years before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. A suffragist leader from Montana—just one of less than a dozen states where women had already won the vote—Rankin fought a grassroots campaign that would foreshadow those of the current era: unsupported by institutional forces, fueled by female voters, and centered on women's, children's, and workers' rights as well as international pacifism. The national media, which had largely ignored or mocked her campaign, reacted to her victory with near obsession, chronicling both her policy positions and her cooking skills.
In 2018, Ocasio-Cortez shredded cheese for an Instant Pot recipe during an Instagram livestream; a century before, the Baltimore Sun, in the first paragraph of an article detailing Rankin's historic move into Congress, noted that she, "aside from achieving a political victory, holds the honor of making the best lemon pie in Montana."
“With a journalist’s eye for the telling detail, and valuable experience covering Congress for The New York Times, Steinhauer is often a few steps ahead of the newcomers. She conveys throughout admiration, sympathy and compassion for her subjects while they learn the hard way that hidebound traditions, a rigid seniority system and encrusted modes of governance do not yield readily to even the strongest convictions. The Firsts is an intimately told story, with detailed and thought-provoking portraits spliced in along the way. Steinhauer makes herself a character in her account, sharing with readers some witty and at times acerbic observations that keep the narrative moving along.”
—The New York Times Book Review
"Steinhauer provides an in-depth look at the women who historically changed the face and composition of Congress. Readers interested in women in politics and government will enjoy the book and appreciate the author’s thorough research."
“Anyone interested in government, especially women in government, will find this book informative and empowering.”
“A fine lesson in civics and political journalism and must reading for anyone contemplating working in electoral politics.”
“If suffragists, who got American women the right to vote 100 years ago, could watch our celebrations this year I am sure they would want people to read The Firsts. Why? Women are still less than 25% of Congress. Read The Firsts, run, and join them. Imagine half the Congress being female. Finish the dream.”
—Former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, Colorado
“The Firsts stands out as one of the most important and best reported books written during the extraordinary political chapter in which we are living. One part ‘you go, girl,’ one part ‘I feel your pain, sister,’ and one part ‘we are here to stay,’ it’s the most sweeping storytelling I’ve read about the 2018 class of women who arrived in Congress and have already left their mark.”
—Nicolle Wallace, author and anchor, Deadline: White House on MSNBC
- On Sale
- Jan 19, 2021
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Algonquin Books