The Inside Story of the Women Reshaping Congress
By Jennifer Steinhauer
This year brings not only a presidential election but also the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, which prohibited abridgment or denial of the right to vote “on account of sex.” It’s an arresting convergence. In an era that has seen a woman come within striking distance of the presidency and an influx of female candidates and officeholders at every level of government, we continue to debate, as did those who supported and opposed women’s suffrage a century ago, women’s impact on American politics. Have women changed the culture of politics, its institutions and governance itself? Or have they behaved as voters and officeholders pretty much like men? The persistence of these questions informs Jennifer Steinhauer’s lively study, “The Firsts: The Inside Story of the Women Reshaping Congress.”
Steinhauer focuses on the 35 women newly elected in 2018 who helped make the 116th the most diverse (by gender, race, ethnicity, age and socioeconomic background) Congress in the nation’s history. Among their number were several notable congressional firsts — including Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim women elected to the House; Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, the first Native American women representatives; as well as, at 29, the two youngest women ever elected to the House, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Abby Finkenauer.
All but one of the new representatives were Democrats, part of the blue wave that allowed the party to reclaim the House in the 2018 midterm elections. Steinhauer sees “this younger, more diverse and more female legislative branch” as one that became “immediately consequential.” Their election, she writes, marked “a historical turning point both for Congress and for American women.” However, she also wonders what difference their presence — as well as their impatience, sense of urgency, drive to advance thoughtful policy and, yes, their diversity — will make in the hoary institution they joined.
Steinhauer pursues her subjects and these larger imperatives in the warrens of Congress, through hearing rooms, private offices, rented apartments, endless functions and then across the country as the freshwomen make their way through their first eventful year in office. She tacks with them between their duties in Washington, their attention to constituents back home and briefly, as their first year closes, in the presidential impeachment that would soon consume the House of Representatives.