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5 Questions for Janet Howell, the Virginia Politician Who Just Published a Kids’ Book About Powerful Women

She's looking to inspire the next generation, but they're already making an impact.

Janet Howell with her book "Leading the Way: Women in Power." Photo by Edyta Wiesner.

Back in 2012, when Virginia Republicans pushed a measure that would require women to undergo an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion, a Democratic state senator from the DC suburbs snagged headlines by proposing an amendment to the bill: Men would heretofore have to undergo a rectal exam in order to obtain erectile-dysfunction medication.

Janet Howell‘s amendment never went anywhere—but neither did Howell, who is now the commonwealth’s longest-serving female legislator. This month, as she prepares to ascend to the legislature’s majority, she’s out with a book. Alas, the erectile-dysfunction amendment probably will not earn a mention in the volume, which is a children’s book cowritten with Howell’s daughter-in-law, Theresa Howell.

All the same, the characters in the book might appreciate the defiant spirit behind the amendment: Entitled Leading the Way: Women in Power, the book profiles 50 US women who have paved the way for little girls to do big things.

We caught up with Howell to chat about the project.

What inspired this book? 

It’s a book my daughter-in-law and I conceived three years ago. We wanted to inspire young girls to become involved in politics and not be scared of power. I was lamenting that girls didn’t seem to have many role models for getting into politics. We said, “Well maybe we should write a book about this.” Once we started writing it, we realized there are so many inspirational women throughout US history, but we just didn’t know about them. One of our goals was to let girls see what women have done throughout history.

Did you find any of these women particularly inspirational? 

Ida B. Wells-Barnett. I should have heard of her, but I never had. She was born into slavery and became a leader in the anti-lynching movement, as well as the NAACP. She was a feminist, so she joined with lots of white women who were working for suffrage and absolutely noting daunted her. After her newspaper was burned down because she was fighting against lynching, she just rebuilt and kept going.

What’s your favorite part of your book?

I actually really like the guide for young kids on how they can make a difference. It’s several pages in the back of the book. We wanted to give them some guidance on how to do it; we call it a take action guide.

Have you seen young people make a difference and take action, especially in Northern Virginia?

Yeah, especially on climate change. There are lots of recycling activities. You know, one of the things that surprised me about this book is how many of the women were Girl Scouts. I didn’t really expect that, but it makes sense.

How was it to work with your daughter-in-law?

She is so talented. We really do think alike. It was a great experience to be able to work with her in her profession, and yet be able to bring in some of my ideas as well.

I saw Hillary Clinton wrote the forward. How did that come about?

We reached out to her. She was fascinated by what we were trying to do. The first time my daughter-in-law and I saw what Hillary had written we were crying. I think it was so inspirational, and so sad. She encourages girls not to be discouraged and to keep fighting for what they believe in. Knowing how she had lost [the 2016 election] it was particularly poignant.

Why do you think there aren’t more books like this? 

I don’t know. One of the things that really spurred us on was that while we were working on the book, teachers were telling us how they often had students dress up as famous Americans and engage in role play. What was so discouraging was that they didn’t have enough women for the girls to choose from, so the girls would dress up as some man. That was appalling. It made me so angry thinking about that. One of the things we really tried to focus on, was to have the broadest possible ethnic range, as well as political range. Any young girl, no matter where she is from or what her background is will find somebody like her.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Aly Prouty
Editorial Fellow

Aly Prouty joined Washingtonian in September 2019. Her work has been featured in Taste of Home, Milwaukee Magazine, Girls’ Life, and more. She graduated from Marquette University and lives in Northern Virginia.