Demeaned, overlooked, fighting back: What it’s like to be a woman in Congress

August 5, 2020

Roll Call: Demeaned, overlooked, fighting back: What it’s like to be a woman in Congress
By Katherine Lyons

When Katherine Clark first came to Congress, someone manning the House chamber tried to stop her from setting foot inside. They didn’t recognize her.

The second time it happened, she wasn’t even all that new. “I was walking in with a male colleague. They just looked at us together, assumed we were a couple, and he was the congressman and that I was a spouse going onto the floor when it wasn’t permitted,” the Massachusetts Democrat recalls.

She’s one of several congresswomen Heard on the Hill spoke to in recent weeks, after a vulgar comment made by Rep. Ted Yoho on the Capitol steps in July touched off a new round of questions about exactly how far women have come.

Back when Clark arrived on the Hill in 2013, she heard warnings about certain male lawmakers, the kind of informal whispers that professional women have relied on for decades. “There were members that we were told, ‘Don’t get in the elevator with them,’” Clark says.

Rep. Joyce Beatty took office the same year. “I can remember feeling and listening to our male counterparts discounting us,” the Ohio Democrat says. As the newcomers settled in, everyone seemed to recognize the men. But those same people didn’t bother to learn her name.

Fast forward seven years, and there are more women in Congress than ever before, after a record-breaking 2018 midterm election catapulted dozens into power.

One of them was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose account of the unwelcome run-in with Yoho last month left some shaking their heads, whether in disbelief or recognition. Whatever the Florida Republican thought he was going to accomplish by berating AOC outside the Capitol, he probably didn’t expect the torrent of anecdotes that would follow, as women spoke out about navigating the culture of the Hill.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal blasted a former colleague, Raúl Labrador, for urging her to learn how to read. “These are the things that happen to us all the time,” she said in a floor speech.

The Washington Democrat described how stunned she was when Rep. Don Young called her “young lady” and announced she didn’t “know a damn thing.” Other Republicans made matters worse, she went on to tell Heard on the Hill. One looked at her and said, “Oh, I don’t think you understand, that’s Don Young,” implying that’s just how he is.

“Well, I don’t think you understand, I’m Pramila Jayapal, and I want an apology,” she recalls saying.

Enduring disrespect, however small the acts may be, can be exhausting. “You’re always aware of it. ‘Is this because I’m a woman? Is this because I’m a person of color?’ It does take a toll on you,” Jayapal says. “At the same time, I think it’s why we’re so powerful in what we fight for. It’s at the forefront of our minds and our policy decisions.”

As August recess begins and House members return to their districts, the Yoho-AOC incident has already faded into the past. But the questions it raised are still fresh as another election nears. “We’re gonna get more of us elected,” Jayapal says.

When the next class of women gets to the Hill, Rep. Brenda Lawrence hopes the culture can keep changing for the better, but she says Republicans have to be part of the solution. She co-chairs Congress’ bipartisan Women’s Caucus, which means she’s spent the last term “uniquely locked into issues that affect women.”

We asked the Michigan Democrat and her Republican co-chair, Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko, what they themselves have seen. While Lawrence describes a concerted effort to reverse years of sexism, Lesko believes institutional sexism is no longer a problem on the Hill.

“I think it goes by the person,” Lesko says, noting that aggressive encounters in politics aren’t limited to men. “We’re all different, right? Some women are nasty. Some women are nice.”

Below are some excerpts from our separate conversations with Lawrence and Lesko, condensed and edited for clarity.

Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., co-chair of the Women’s Caucus
“We have more women in Congress now than we’ve ever had. [Less than a decade ago] they built a women’s bathroom off the House floor. Before that, it was just for men. Simple things like that just make you aware of how far we’ve come.

I’m the double whammy: I’m a Black woman. Committee hearings can get pretty tough. One time, we were debating racist policies of the Trump administration, and [then-Rep. Mark] Meadows had an African American woman come and stand behind him, which was unusual. She was a prop.

And I called him out on it. We had a big debate after that privately. I said, ‘Have you ever stood a white man behind you? That was a human being. That wasn’t a billboard.’

Something my grandmother told me as I grew up, she said, ‘Brenda, as a Black woman in America, you are going to spend the majority of your life doing two things. One is educating people, because most of prejudice or racist behavior is ignorance, and the other thing is forgiving people, because if you don’t forgive, all that hate is going to consume you, and you’ll become one of them.’

I was an [Equal Employment Opportunity] investigator prior to coming to Congress, and I had a case where it was an allegation of discrimination. When I went to investigate it, [one of the men] wasn’t very happy to see a Black woman walking in. So he slammed his hand down on the table and said, ‘Look, let me tell you something. I don’t like your kind, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.’ And I smiled and said, ‘You’re absolutely right. I can’t stop you from being prejudiced. But I can stop you from discriminating, because there are laws. If you want to work here, you’re going to have to change your behavior.’

I remember being a young girl walking down the street and the guys would scream out their little comments, ‘Hey, baby,’ and you just go, ‘Get a life, go away.’ But you become a survivor. I’m not a baby. I’m an accomplished badass woman. And I want to be treated that way.

I don’t think you can talk to a woman in my age bracket who has not endured some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. Because it was a culture, we just fought through it. We shook it off. It is incumbent upon me, in my stage in my life, in my years of experience, and now in my leadership position in the Congressional Women’s Caucus, to correct behaviors, to set a tone. Hopefully the next class of women coming into Congress won’t have someone saying, ‘This little girl doesn’t understand.’

My Republican co-chair in the Women’s Caucus is Debbie Lesko. So we sat down at the beginning of the term and said, ‘What can we work together on?’ We could work together on child care. We talked about maternal mortality. There are a lot of things we don’t agree on, but there are things we do agree on.

I question the Republican Party. They have so few women on the Republican side, only 13 in the House. Why do you have so few? Do you nurture within your party? You have all these women who are Republicans [around the country]. Are you putting them in positions of leadership?

We made a deliberate effort in the Democratic Party, creating programs to bring women in, like Higher Heights for America. We have EMILYs List. We figured out how we can put our arms around women and mentor them, because politics is a rough game.

You know, I don’t want to help the Republican Party, but I will tell you that they need to do some self-evaluation: Why doesn’t our caucus look like America?

The America we live in today has women in almost every walk of life, in leadership positions. The number of people of color is growing. It’s no longer a white country. I hope one day the Republican Party will get there and see that this country, this America they pledged allegiance to, does not look like the Republican side of the House.

Talk about survivors. I often look at the portrait of [the first Black woman in Congress,] Shirley Chisholm, and say, ‘Oh my God, how lonely could this place have been for her?’

Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., co-chair of the Women’s Caucus
“I’m on the Judiciary Committee. Chairman [Jerrold] Nadler often calls my amendments stupid, ridiculous, not well-written. The first time he did it, I was taken aback. I thought it was supposed to be demeaning to me because I’m a woman.

But this is kind of regular for him. He says it to guys too. So the next time I said, ‘Well, I guess you’re calling the legislative staff, the lawyers stupid, because I just give them the idea, they actually write it.’ And then he backed off.

I was on the floor one time giving a speech, and Congressman [Bill] Pascrell, I think his name is, from New Jersey, he called me a ‘wacko’ right in the middle of my speech. He yelled it out.

Who knows what people call me behind my back, but I don’t care. Unfortunately, you gotta get thick skin when you’re in elected office. I started out years ago when I joined the PTA at my kids’ school, and I remember coming home crying to my husband because the women were mean to me.

Since then I’ve come a long way. Now people call me all kinds of things. The absolute worst are the people who support Planned Parenthood. When I was in the Arizona Statehouse, I did a pro-life bill, and they came after me nationwide. Those people said the most vile things, like I should stick things in my orifices. I won’t say what they said. My assistant at the time, she was just so depressed because she had to listen to this stuff. We shut off my home phone number for two weeks.

In an ideal world, we would treat others as we would like to be treated and we would love others, right? As the Bible says. But even back in biblical times, people didn’t do that.

Conservative Republican women are used to being abused by the liberals. We’re used to it. That’s why I fight back.

I remember one of my first times in Judiciary, at the beginning of 2019. [Rep. David] Cicilline interrupted me while I was speaking and said something really insulting. So I walked over, way on the other side of the dais. At first he turned and said, ‘Oh, hi!’ and was going to shake my hand, but I was like, ‘I thought that was very rude.’ And he said, ‘Well, you better get educated before you speak.’ Then I turned away and said, ‘Asshole.’ I didn’t say it directly at him, and it was an impulse, but I said, ‘Asshole.’ I know how to fight back.

I’m on the Rules Committee too. [Chairman Jim McGovern] is not as bad, but he can be really condescending sometimes. He said something on the floor once, I can’t remember what it was. I walked over to him and said, ‘That was insulting,’ and he apologized. I think that’s the way to handle it. And that’s what I tried to do with Cicilline. You have to do that. Doesn’t matter if they’re a woman or a guy, you can’t take crap.

I tell you what, the difference between the Arizona State Capitol and here is huge. We would never, ever have been allowed to say the type of stuff they get away with here in committees and on the floor. Never in a million years. We were very strict about that. Here it seems like anything goes. Nobody seems to get reprimanded.

But no, I don’t think [sexism is an institutional problem in Congress]. Every person is different. There are some really, really great men, very respectful men in Congress on both sides of the aisle, and then there are some that aren’t, you know? I think it goes by the person, just like women. We’re all different, right? Some women are nasty. Some women are nice. I don’t think it’s institutional.