Portraits of Power

For most of recorded American history, political power has looked a certain way. But the 2018 midterm elections brought a seismic change.

The Women of the 116th Congress: Portraits of Power—a collaboration between New York Times photo editors Beth Flynn and and Marisa Schwartz Taylor and photographers Elizabeth D. Herman and Celeste Sloman—documents the women of the 116th Congress, photographed in the style of historical portrait paintings commonly seen in the halls of power to highlight the stark difference between how we’ve historically viewed governance and how it has evolved.

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It may not come as a surprise that I’ve been thinking a lot about women and power lately. I keep returning to this study done at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2010 by Okimoto & Brescoll that found that women who seek power are respected, but not well-liked, while those who act communally are well-liked, but not respected. And professional success often requires both (for women at least, and especially for women seeking elected office). • We punish women for being ambitious, which we see as going against social norms — they should be lifting up the community, rather than themselves. And even if their work does lift up the community, if they achieve personal success along the way, we tend to hold that against them. • This International Women’s Day, I’d like to ask a favor. The next time you catch yourself responding negatively to a powerful or ambitious woman, try to dig into that feeling a bit. It’s no one’s fault that we have this built-in bias against women and power — I have it, too! It’s part of living in society. But if we can start to be aware of it, and consciously work against it by challenging these thoughts and feelings when they arise, and expose ourselves to more stories and images and histories of powerful women, then we can start to shift our associations. • The more we start to associate women with power — to have it be a woman that comes to mind when someone refers to a leader or politician or president — the more we will start to see it as the norm, rather than the exception. The less we will punish women who seek power. The stronger we will be for having more representative leadership. • Pictured: portraits from the Women of the 116th Congress, a special project for the @nytimes (link in bio), paired with presidential portraits. (1) Thomas Jefferson, by Mather Brown & Sharice Davids (D), representing KS’s 3rd; (2) Abraham Lincoln, by George Healy & Lauren Underwood (D), representing IL’s 14th; (3) Warren Harding, by Margaret Lindsay Williams & Susie Lee (D), representing NV’s 3rd; (4) Dwight Eisenhower, by James Anthony Wills & Yvette Clarke (D), representing NY’s 9th; (5) Millard Fillmore, by George Healy & Kyrsten Sinema (D), Senator from AZ.

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Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, painted by George Healy, and Lauren Underwood (D-IL), elected in 2018. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, changing the legal status of slaves to free within states that had seceded from the Union; it wasn’t until more than one hundred years later, in 1968, that Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) became the first black woman elected to Congress. Underwood is the youngest black woman to ever serve in Congress and the first black woman to represent the 14th District in Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. 

Kyrsten Sinema, Senator (D): Her victory in 2018 made her the first woman elected to the Senate from Arizona, the first openly bisexual person elected to the Senate, and the first woman elected to the Senate from Arizona. “It is an incredible honor to be sworn in as Arizona’s senior senator and the first woman to serve Arizona in the Senate. Arizonans deserve leaders who put country above party, and I pledge to keep our state’s tradition of doing just that.”

Deb Haaland, Representative (D): Elected in 2018, she and Sharice Davids of Kansas are the first Native American congresswomen. “Congress has never heard a voice like mine. After years of seeing my community at the whim of national politics while organizing in Indian Country, it was time for me to take the lead. I bring the perspective of New Mexicans and, for that matter, Americans in general, because I’ve been there. I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck. I’ve put a child through college. I’ve taken on student debt and still owe on my loans. These issues are not small issues for families, and there are plenty of ways we can help.” 

Celeste Sloman photographs Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) on Capitol Hill on December 17, 2018; Elizabeth D. Herman photographs Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) on Capitol Hill on December 17, 2018.

The Women of the 116th Congress: Portraits of Power, by The New York Times. © October 15, 2019.


Elizabeth D. Herman and Celeste Sloman are New York Times photographers.