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Women belong in the House

How women are faring in Congress

Jennifer Steinhauer (© Bill Pierce)
Jennifer Steinhauer (© Bill Pierce)

Some elections are particularly noteworthy not only because of the specific candidates who win or lose in a particular district, but because the kind of people those candidates are, and they kind of issues they champion, may be an important marker of societal change.

The 2018 congressional election was such an election. It signaled that women have a growing role in the political arena, and that once they’ve made it through the primaries, they have as much chance to win as do their male counterparts.

New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer has been writing about Congress since 2010. Not only has she covered the elections and careers of the women who were elected to the House in 2018, but she has written a book, “The Firsts: The Inside Story of the Women Reshaping Congress,” chronicling their experiences. The book was published this year. Ms. Steinhauer, who spent a year following the legislators not only in Washington, D.C. but in their home districts, will talk about her book on October 22 for the JCC U. (See box.)

Publicity for the book summarizes the results of the 2018 election: “In January 2019, the largest number of women ever elected to Congress was sworn in—87 in the house and 23 in the Senate. This history-making Class of ’19 included many remarkable firsts: the youngest woman ever to serve; the first two Muslim women; the first two native American women, one openly gay; a black woman from a nearly all-white Chicago suburb; and a Hispanic woman from a heavily Republican border region. In many instances these were the first women and/or persons of color and/or youngest persons to serve from their state or district.”

In her presentation for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades’ JCC U, Ms. Steinhauer will talk about these women, chronicling their transition from trailblazing campaigns to the daily work of governance. The presentation, she said, will make use of anecdotes “to talk about what 2018 taught us about 2020.”

The candidates in 2018 varied in age, gender, race, and sexual orientation. Asked which factor might most impact someone’s chance of winning, Ms. Steinhauer noted that the late Shirley Chisholm — who in 1968 became the first African-American woman elected to Congress, subsequently serving for seven terms — said “it was less problem being black than being a woman.”

Ms. Steinhauer noted that “Republican women have a harder time getting through a primary.” They also tend to staff their campaigns with stay-at-home moms and older women rather than young volunteers. In the 2018 election, the Republican Congressional caucus actually lost women, which Ms. Steinhauer attributes to their “being dragged down by the administration.”

Once in office, she said, women tackle a wide range of issues. Military veterans, for example, may show a special interest in national security. She called the freshman class of 2018 “impressive,” coming from all walks of life, from state legislatures to the private sector to the military. “They’re just extremely knowledgeable,” she said, suggesting that this accounts for the number of leadership roles they have been offered. “It’s unprecedented,” she added.

In general, she said, “women are getting better at deciding to run rather than waiting to be asked.” This, together with their concern over the direction in which the administration was going, prompted many to run. Once in Congress, “They experience the same kind of issues as women in the workplace,” she said, citing “mansplaining” as one such issue, and the name-calling directed at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by a colleague with whom she disagreed, as another.

“What happened in 2018 might show us what’s happening now,” Ms. Steinhauer said. “None of the women have lost a primary, and very few are in vulnerable seats. They’re very strong.

“They ran as women, speaking to women, who are an important part of the electorate. It’s a huge reason why Biden appears to be surging.”

In general, she said, the Democrats run heavily on health care, since they feel that Republicans are vulnerable on that issue. For their part, the Republicans in the past several decades have framed elections around marriage, rather than gender politics. “Many women would like to see a shift,” she said.

On the whole, she concluded, women are doing well in politics, hopefully inspiring women in the next generation to throw their hats into the political ring as well.

Jennifer Steinhauer, who lives in Washington, D.C., has covered many high-profile beats in her 25-year reporting career at the New York Times, from City Hall bureau chief and Los Angeles bureau chief to Capitol Hill. She won the Newswoman’s Club of New York Front Page Deadline Reporting Award in 2006 for her reporting on Hurricane Katrina. She has written a novel about the television business, and two cookbooks. (In a telephone call, she said she’d love to write another cookbook but hasn’t had time.)


Save the Date

Who: New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer

What: Will talk about her book, “The Firsts: The Inside Story of the Women Reshaping Congress”

When: On October 22 at 11 a.m.

For whom: JCC U, a program of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly

Where: On Zoom; after you register you’ll get a link.

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