“You get to decide what success means.”
In The Firsts: The Inside Story of the Women Reshaping Congress, New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer documents the experiences of freshmen congresswomen who took Congress by storm in 2019.
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of The Firsts:
Can you believe we are going to be members of Congress?—Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) to Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.)
On an overcast day in April, a dozen high school girls gathered in a recreation room in Juniper Gardens, the oldest and largest public housing complex in Kansas City, Kansas. It was their weekly meeting with the Learning Club, an after-school program that offers tutoring and mentoring to some of the most marginalized students in this postindustrial city.
As an intoxicated denizen stumbled past the probing gaze of a security guard, Sharice Davids finished up a call on the portico of the building, then walked in to join the girls waiting to meet her. Casual in dark trousers and a light-colored shirt, her face free of makeup, her long hair swinging behind her, the Native American congresswoman carried herself with an unstudied, casual pleasantness, and plopped herself among them.
Most Congress members adjust their outfits, their demeanor, their vernacular—even their accents—to conform to their audience, be it at a campaign stop, a committee hearing, a dinner with donors, or a town hall meeting in their districts. For months, I followed Davids to water treatment projects; to meetings with mayors and job seekers; to a confab with designer-accessorized members of the Wing, a high-end coworking space for women in Georgetown; and to see these high school students from families with an average household income of $8,184 per year. In each environment, she always seemed to be just Sharice.
“So, what’s it like to be a role model?” Davids casually asked the girls, who were working with smaller kids at the center as part of a training workshop in childcare. What did they like to study? What did they want to do after high school? Did any of them want to run for office at some point? (Her advice if they did: Take naps.) She didn’t do so well in school all the time, she told them, especially the year her mother was stationed overseas for the army. Other times, high school went better.
They had questions for her, too: What was hard about her job?
Making big decisions, Davids said, like whether or not to ground airplanes involved in a series of crashes, even if the grounding would have an enormous impact on the airline business. “I get emotional and overwhelmed,” she admitted.
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She told them about how carpenters make furniture in one of the House office buildings, about how all of her meetings last approximately fifteen minutes, about people who come to her office to get issues with their social security payments unraveled.
One young Black girl, her voice slightly shaking, quietly asked Davids, a former mixed martial artist, community college and law school graduate, lesbian, Ho-Chunk Nation member, and the only Democrat in the Kansas congressional delegation, if she faced discrimination in Washington.
Davids sipped from her water bottle, sipped again, and then jokingly went to take another sip, feigning avoidance of the question. There had been a local publication during her campaign that often targeted her with racist taunts, she told them. “I asked my staff to stop including their clips in my daily media binder,” she said.
In Congress, she went on, things had been better, but not always. “Guys will grab me in one way or another. That stuff still happens. People say things that are unintentional and also overt,” she said. “I have a go-to phrase: ‘That’s an interesting thing for you to say to me!’”
The girls, riveted by her candor, laughed.
“Now that I am a member of Congress, I have more authority,” she added. “I depend on people to be good allies. It depends, though, because I don’t like to escalate things. You know what that’s like?”
The girl who had asked the discrimination question nodded.
Davids looked at her. “What do you do?” she asked the young woman, who looked back shyly. “You don’t have to say.”
I sat back in my chair at the edge of the room and closed my eyes, thinking of every male member of Congress I had ever followed around a district, from Rotary Club meetings to small-business forums to hospital centers to 4-H clubs, and tried to recall a similar moment, the kind that will never go in a campaign video or become part of the Congressional Record. There were no voters in this nondescript recreation room in Kansas City, no potential donors, no officials who needed Davids’s assistance or could provide her help. It was a major chunk of time for a member of Congress to give up in the middle of an overscheduled day.
That moment, and scores of other unseen ones like it over that initial year, illustrated how the new women of Congress, many of them firsts from their racial or ethnic group to serve in their district (or, as in Davids’s case, the nation) undertook their roles beyond lawmaking. They know that they are not just “representatives” in the constitutional sense; they also represent real inspiration for others, and they take that role seriously.
As she took her leave, disappointed to be pulled back into her car and the trappings of the adult world again, Davids had a reminder for her new young friends, whatever their paths were—whether college student, member of Congress, journeyman plumber: “You get to decide what success means.”
Adapted from The Firsts by Jennifer Steinhauer ©2021 by Jennifer Steinhauer. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.
Get further introduced to the new feminists in Congress by listening to the latest episode of “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin”: Meet the New Feminists in Congress (with Jennifer Steinhauer + Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux, Teresa Leger Fernandez and Marie Newman).
Or head to the episode landing page for a full transcript:
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