News & Politics

What It’s REALLY Like to Be a Woman in Congress

"We text each other all day, every day."

What It’s REALLY Like to Be a Woman in Congress

1. Well, a little context. The first time the US sent a female lawmaker to Capitol Hill was in 1917. (She was from Montana.)

Today, as you probably know by now, there are 127 women in the House and Senate. Congress is nearly ¼ female—a record. OK, but who are these lady bosses? Most—44%—are 60 to 79 years old. Another swath—43% —are 40 to 59. There are 10 women in their thirties, 5 in their eighties, and a 29-year-old (pretty sure you know who she is). 78% are moms. 69% are married. More than  are women of color—46 Democrats, 1 Republican. Which brings us to another imbalance. Women’s representation is concentrated on the left side of the aisle: 106 Democrats, compared with 21 Republicans. In the November 2018 midterms, the GOP actually lost 8 seats held by women. Not great. But then consider this: A century after that Montana woman took her seat in Congress and it became coed, there are still 18 states that have never sent a female senator to Washington and 4 that haven’t elected a woman to the House.

2. Potty parity was basically a joke for a long time, and kind of still is.

So, the last so-called year of the woman was 1992. The following year, women Senators *finally* got a lady’s loo installed outside the Senate chambers. What else has and hasn’t changed since 1992?


3. You have to find your squad.

Who are you going to network, commiserate, or gamble with?

Photograph of The Pink Ladies courtesy of Representative Lois Frankel.

The Pink Ladies

When formed: 2012.

Membership: Congresswomen Lois Frankel, Cheri Bustos, Grace Meng, Annie Kuster, Katherine Clark, and Julia Brownley, plus a rotating cast of other Dems, many of whom live in the same Capitol Hill apartment building.

What they do: Regular dinners and late-night water-aerobics classes in the building’s pool—plus, says Frankel, “We text each other all day, every day.”

Black Women’s Congressional Alliance

When formed: 2018.

Membership: It started as a spread-sheet with a hand­ful of names and morphed over-night into a bicameral, bipartisan group of 200.

What they do: Events for staffers. “We were like, five people might show up,” organizer Meaghan Lynch says of the first meetup. “Over 100 women showed up, from chiefs and staff directors to interns.”

Debbie Dingell’s Poker Night

When formed: A longstanding event that Dingell was invited to join years ago.

Membership: Former and current Hill and administration members, mostly Republicans.

What they do: Monthly (low-stakes) games over a potluck dinner. An invitation sounds tougher to get than a security clearance. All Dingell will say of the player roster is “There are very interesting people around town who play poker.”


4. A supportive husband is clutch.

Sean Murphy, husband of Florida Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, explains why.

Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy and her husband, Sean. Photograph courtesy of Sean Murphy.

Have you ever thought, “What am I doing, single-parenting”?

“Absolutely. There’s always really unique things happening in the kids’ lives. I document and video as much as I can for Stephanie. We use WhatsApp and Facetime and the phone. But her schedule is so busy that we’ve always got to tightly coordinate the time that she can see the kids or chat with them.”


5. It helps to remember what it took to get there.

Just ask one of these new trailblazers.

Ilhan Omar (Minnesota’s 5th District)

Who she is: first Somali-American and one of first two Muslim women in Congress

Former jobs: State legislator; city-council policy aide; community nutrition educator.

Notable: Somali refugee who emigrated to the US at age 12.

“It is important to start to talk about the politics of joy—we are a nation that can open up our hearts, our minds, and make sure that human rights are protected and sanctuary is given to people who are in harsh situations. The day we took our freshman-class photo, it dawned on me that it was just 20 years ago that my family drove by the Capitol as we arrived in the US. Now I am a representative in Congress! A little over two decades ago, I was a 12-year-old kid who missed four years of proper education and lived in a refugee camp and didn’t speak English. It is those kinds of moments that are surreal and feel a little strange. All of it. All the feelings.

Veronica Escobar (Texas’s 16th District)

Who she is: one of first two Latinas ever elected to the House by Texas

Former jobs: County judge; county commissioner; teacher.

Notable: Third-generation border resident. “I can see Mexico from—this is not a Sarah Palin moment—I can literally see Mexico from my second-floor window.”

“By law, I had to resign from my job in county government to run. We’re middle class, we don’t have stocks, we don’t have family wealth. We refinanced our home and paid off debt and whittled our life down. The kids knew they wouldn’t have us to fall back on. We’d help fund their college tuition, but flights back home or books or clothes were on them. We knew we’d essentially have to hold our breath for a year and a half and hope that nobody got sick, nobody got into a bad car accident, that we didn’t have an emergency or an appliance breakdown. It was a gamble for all of us.”


Deb Haaland (New Mexico’s 1st District)

Who she is: first one of first two Native American women in Congress

Former jobs: Chair of state Democratic party; lieutenant-governor candidate; tribal administrator for a reservation; owner of a salsa company; cake decorator.

Notable: Put herself through law school as a single mom.

“[Being a single mom] has caused me to work really hard, right? You’re working, you’re raising your child, you’re multitasking, trying to figure out ‘How am I going to get my child from point A to point B when I’m at point C?’ I felt for the longest time that my daughter was my priority. For example, I never went anywhere I couldn’t take her with me, because I couldn’t afford a babysitter. She went to every single political event, rally—everything that I worked on she was there with me. In the respect that campaigning is very hard work—it takes a lot of strategy and juggling—I almost feel like I had a lifetime of that.”


Abby Finkenauer (Iowa’s 1st District)

Who she is: one of first two women in their twenties ever elected to Congress

Former jobs: State legislator; legislative assistant in the state-house; sales assistant.

Notable: Youngest female state lawmaker in Iowa; second-youngest woman in Congress.

“One of the biggest lessons I learned in the statehouse was know what you don’t know and put folks around you who you can get opinions from. If anything, I look at my age as more of an opportunity than an obstacle. I still have student-loan debt, and I was renting a house back home and my car is still ten years old, so when it comes to the finances, is it difficult? Yeah. It is interesting when you’re filling out your financial-disclosure forms [for the House] and they give you pages and pages of assets. [For me] those are empty, but then on the liability side, you’re trying to figure out where all your student-loan debt is.”


Rashida Tlaib (Michigan’s 13th District)

Who she is: first Palestinian-American and one of first two Muslim women in Congress

Former jobs: State lawmaker; lawyer and advocate.

Notable: Called Trump a “mother-f – – – er” at a MoveOn event shortly after taking office. Represents the third-poorest US district. Known for stunt activism, including collecting toxic environmental waste in Ziplocs and blocking a street in support of a minimum-wage boost.

“I think elevating the voices of my residents will entail introducing legislation and voting the right way, but also coming back home and fighting in the streets. That will involve civil disobedience, activism work around protesting, marching, and so forth, like during the civil-rights movement. I think there’s a level of courage and moral compass that’s been lacking for a very long time in Congress. I think my style will be different.”

6. And not to let anything—including men—get in your way.

Like these three local stars, who turned Virginia blue—and pink.

Elaine Luria

Age: 43

Former jobs: Owns a make-your-own-mermaid shop; naval commander.

Notable: Six overseas deployments during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; supervised nuclear reactors; mother of three.

First foray into politics: “We sell mermaids, but we’re also selling an experience. But we’re not a restaurant and didn’t have the ability to serve wine. It seems like a small thing, but I lobbied very hard for legislation to change that. It passed, and now I think 55 or 60 businesses can take advantage of the license we have.”

Learning curve on the campaign trail: “Being in the military is a very nonpartisan thing. When you’re deployed, you would never turn to the sailor next to you while you’re launching simultaneous strikes against terrorist targets and ask, ‘Are you a Democrat or a Republican?’ The idea that everything has to be divided on party differences was something that was not part of the way I approached my career up till that point.”

On women and power: “My generation of women went through their whole naval careers on combatant ships, had command of combat units, and rose to the highest ranks of the military, proving that women can do difficult jobs.”

Where she’s living: Capitol Hill.

Abigail Spanberger

Age: 39

Former jobs: Consultant; CIA operative; postal inspector.

Notable: Speaks four languages; handled foreign spies while pregnant; mother of three.

The day she decided to run: “The House voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would have fundamentally changed the coverage of millions of Americans. We have friends who have a daughter with a genetic disorder—the fear they expressed that day was profound.”

Roughest moment on the campaign trail: “What felt hard at the beginning was laughable by the end. The first time I did a television interview was really, really hard and stressful—here I was, a former undercover CIA officer. Then I had my national-security questionnaire released—how do you handle that? In addition to campaigning and everything else, I had to shut down my credit—all those added challenges. The super-PAC that e-mailed it out to re-porters had my Social Security number up on their website.”

On the last time she lived in Washington, in her twenties: “We went to Georgetown all the time and the waterfront. I used to hang out at Capitol Ballroom—is that still around?” (No.)

Where she’s living: Navy Yard.

Jennifer Wexton

Age: 50

Former jobs: Prosecutor in Loudoun County; state senator; family lawyer.

Notable: Born in DC, supports state-hood; parents were federal workers; mother of two.

On work/life balance: “My husband had a career at a big law firm, but it wasn’t particularly inspiring for him. I was completely dedicated to my job. He was willing and wanted to be the stay-at-home dad, which back when we had kids, in 2003, was still not really a big thing.”

Catalyzing moments: “After getting through the stages of grief following the 2016 election, I went to the Women’s March, which was like nothing I’ve ever seen. After that, I went to Dulles Airport for the Muslim-ban protests, and seeing hundreds of volunteers and people raising their fists in solidarity was incredible.”

Roughest part of campaigning: “The relentless attack ads and having my kids’ friends get served these ads on YouTube or on TV. My 13-year-old came home one day, and he was like, yeah, you know, Mom, some boy came up to me in PE class and said, ‘Jamie, some boys want to beat you up because your mom’s going to raise taxes.’ ”

Where she’s living: With relatives in Old Town and McLean, or at home in Leesburg.

This article appears in the February 2019 issue of Washingtonian.

Editorial Fellow
Britt Peterson

Britt Peterson is a contributing editor for Washingtonian.

Web Producer and Social Media Fellow

Helen joined Washingtonian in January 2018. She studied Journalism and International Relations at the University of Southern California. She recently won an Online News Award for her work on a project about the effects of the Salton Sea, California’s greatest burgeoning environmental disaster, on a Native American tribe whose ancestral lands are on its shores. Before joining the magazine, Helen worked in Memphis covering education for Chalkbeat. Her work has appeared in USA Today, The Desert Sun, Chalkbeat Tennessee, Sunset Magazine, Indiewire, and others.

Adia H. Robinson
Editorial Fellow