19 Women In Congress Reveal The Subtle (And Overt) Sexism They’ve Dealt With On Capitol Hill
A record number of women are headed to Congress in January, a significant accomplishment on the path toward gender parity. In light of this landmark achievement, Bustle spoke to women in Congress about the sexism they faced when they were first elected to office at both local and federal levels, as well as about what they've seen change over the years since.
In speaking to current representatives and senators, as well as several congresswomen-elects, several patterns emerged. Women in Congress shared stories of being mistaken for spouses — and in one representative's case, as waitstaff. They also detailed their journeys vying for positions on top congressional committees, and grappling with how to balance family commitments with their new duties to their constituents.
One common sentiment that many of the women expressed was that while progress has been made, there is still a long way to go. Congress is not the boys' club it was 30, 15, or even five years ago, many said, but its culture — and even its physical architecture — is still designed with men in mind.
As more women have been elected to both the House and the Senate, many are rallying together to make those changes a reality. Baby changing tables were recently installed in congressional bathrooms, for example, and one group of congressional mothers is organizing to make the congressional schedule more hospitable for working parents.
Still, significantly more women need to be elected to Congress if true gender parity is to exist on Capitol Hill. And while changes have been made over the years, it's clear from these women's stories that there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH)
Hassan says she's seen an increasing number of women thrive in leadership positions in her state. But, she says, gender discrimination can still be an issue.
"On a smaller scale, oftentimes when I would go to national events with my husband Tom, people would introduce themselves to him, thinking that he was the governor," she says. "Other times, people would ask when the governor was arriving — even though I was already there — because they were expecting a man. But what we have learned in New Hampshire is that having women in elected leadership sets a powerful example for our younger generation."
As far as her work in the Senate is concerned, Hassan says that regularly getting together with other women senators has made an impact on how women in that chamber interact with each other.
"Since there are still only 23 of us, it’s a particularly important opportunity for us to get to know each other so that we can better support one another and work together in a world in which we are still a significant minority," she says. "There is far more work to do to balance the gender dynamics in Congress and until we do so, we won’t be fully able to be a government body that truly represents the American citizenry."
Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA)
"I’m shocked by the old stereotypes that are still around in Congress from the turn of the century," Torres says. "I’m stunned by how often I’m interrupted by male colleagues and referred to as 'mister.' It’s a challenge I also faced as a local elected official and the reason my husband stopped attending events with me — people would automatically assume that he was the member, and I was the supporting spouse. I thought Congress was above that."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)
Wasserman Schultz recalls when she hired her predecessor’s scheduler, who, she says, was great at her job. "But I overheard her…making an excuse for why I couldn’t come to something, rather than just saying what the real reason was — which was that I had to do something with my kids," Wasserman Schultz says. "So I called her in... I called her in and I talked to her and I said listen, when we can’t make something because I need to be a mother, then we need to be honest and share that."
Being upfront about the fact that she is both a mother and a congresswoman, Wasserman Schultz says, is important to her.
"So I said if we can’t go because I’ve got something to do with my family, that's what we should tell them," she adds. "And that’s how I’ve always handled scheduling, just being very transparent that I won’t shirk my responsibility as a parent, and I certainly won’t shirk my responsibility as a member of Congress."
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN)
"During my time in Congress, I have certainly experienced instances of gender-based discrimination," McCollum says. "From small things, like being directed toward the 'spouse' area instead of the 'Member of Congress' area, to bigger things, like being harassed by a colleague to the point where I had to roll up my newspaper and swat him away. These kinds of slights and unwanted advances are something that nearly every woman has had to deal with — whether it be in the halls of Congress, working in an office, or just walking down the street."
But from McCollum's perspective, things are improving.
"We now have a historic number of women serving in Congress, and with that kind of representation comes a more inclusive environment and camaraderie between female legislators," she says. "With all that has happened with the #MeToo movement, women all over the world are using their voices to combat sexism and promote equality in the workplace."
Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH)
"Looking back on my public service career, there are several instances I can recall where I faced unique challenges as a woman — especially a woman of color," Beatty tells Bustle. "The one experience that always comes to mind is when I was hosting my first 'big' meeting as director of Montgomery County’s (OH) Department of Community Human Services."
Beatty says that she arrived early to set up the event and greet people as they arrived.
"As I welcomed my fellow executives — all of whom were men — one individual, assuming I was a member of the wait staff, instructed me how he 'took his coffee,'" she says. "A lot of things were swirling in my head at that moment, as you may imagine, but I ultimately decided to get him that cup of coffee. You can only imagine the look on his face when I then took the head seat and formally kicked off the planning meeting."
A lot has changed in the last three decades, Beatty adds, "no better illustrated than in the makeup of the upcoming 116th Congress."
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY)
"During my second term in Congress, Congresswoman Pat Schroeder came over to me one late night on the House floor and said, 'We need a New York woman to get the women out of the basement,'" Maloney tells Bustle. "I had no idea what she was talking about, but that conversation would spur a exhausting fight to give some women the important recognition they deserved."
Maloney explains that the Portrait Monument, which is a statue of suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony, had been placed in the Capitol basement for years.
"And so began a fight to move the statue to its rightful place, in the literal center of our nation’s government," Maloney says. "After hearing all of the excuses in the book as to why we couldn’t move the statue, we finally got our resolution through, and then one more excuse was thrown at us; the statue was 'too ugly.' I couldn’t believe my ears. Per usual, Rep. Schroeder, as sharp as tack, replied: 'Have you looked at Lincoln?'"
On Mother's Day of 1997, Maloney says, the Portrait Monument was placed in the Rotunda "among other heroes for all those who visit the Capitol to see."
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV)
"When I first came to the Senate two years ago, it was clear that the office buildings were not built with women in mind — women’s restrooms were few and far between, they lacked changing tables for mothers, and infants were banned from the Senate floor," Cortez Masto says. "Some may view these as minor inconveniences, but they represent the historic exclusion of women from American politics."
Being on the Senate Rules Committee, she adds, "revealed instances of gender bias within the institution."
"I’ve reviewed so many outdated Senate guidelines, most from a time when this institution had only one perspective — that of white men," Cortez Masto says. "It’s been my privilege as the first Latina senator in U.S. history to bring my own unique perspective to this process and to be part of a generation of women lawmakers who are working hard to change the balance of power in Washington, not just by making changes to our office buildings, but by crafting policies that recognize the unique challenges and viewpoints of women across the country. I look forward to more women running for office, and I’m encouraged to see Congress slowly but surely reflecting the diversity of the people we serve."
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR)
"Coming in from a special election mid-year in 2012, my start in Congress was a whirlwind," Bonamici tells Bustle. "From the very beginning I knew I wanted to empower other women, regardless of their stage in life."
Bonamici recalls that she hired a woman who recently gave birth as she was the most qualified person to be her district director. That person moved to Washington, D.C. with her baby.
"People in D.C. didn’t know how to react and some questioned the decision, but we created an environment where my district director could bring her baby into work if needed," she says. "I’m happy to report that we’ve kept that up."
"We’ve had many senior meetings where a new mom was holding their baby," she adds. "If a baby happens to cry it isn’t a big deal — it just blends with the other background noise of a bustling House office. When I talk with others in D.C. about what we do, I get the feedback that it doesn’t seem possible to support new moms like this. But I have seen how it puts these great women in a better position to succeed, and allows us to benefit from their talents and expertise."
Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA)
"Going up against the Old Boys Club has been a part of my experience in politics since my days running for the California Assembly," Chu says. "But, thanks to the support of strong women like Hilda Solis, I won then. And I’ve taken that same fight against the glass ceiling to Washington, as well."
Chu says that she knew she wanted to be a member of the Ways and Means Committee when she first came to Congress in 2009.
"I had to fight my way to get onto this committee. In fact, it took eight long years, but it finally happened at the start of this Congress — 2016 — that I became one of the four Democratic women on the committee and the first Asian American woman to serve in history," she recalls. "Unlike our male peers, it’s not enough for us to aspire to be in leadership or powerful positions. We have to fight for it in ways they never had to."
Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA)
"When I first arrived in Washington after winning a special election in 2007, I was the first woman to be elected to Congress from Massachusetts in 25 years," Tsongas says. "I often tell a story that when I went to the House floor for the first time to vote, it felt like going from the playing field to the locker room; the only thing missing was the snapping of towels."
At the time, Tsongas says that only about 15 percent of House members were women.
"As I’ve said time and again, women can’t win elected office if women don’t run," she says. "When the 116th Congress is sworn in in January, over 100 women (over 25 percent in the House and nearly 25 percent in the Senate) will be serving in Congress for the first time in our history, including 4 women from Massachusetts — Elizabeth Warren, Katherine Clark, Lori Trahan, and Ayanna Pressley. It is my hope that as more women run — and win — more women and girls will be encouraged to get involved in the process, changing our democracy for the better."
Rep.-elect Kendra Horn (D-OK)
"There are so many women in this class, it's changed the conversation," Horn, who will be sworn in to Congress in January with a record number of women, says. "There's definitely heightened awareness and a sense that things will operate differently. It highlights the strength of women, but also historical inequities. Not only is it the largest class of women, it's diverse — single moms, mothers of young children, working professionals — it represents and reflects the contributions women make every day in a new way."
Rep.-elect Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL)
"My perspective coming in as a new member, I think, has been mostly from a mom's perspective," Mucarsel-Powell tells Bustle. She says that she has school-aged children, and that many of her fellow incoming freshman are also parents. When it comes to transitioning into her new role, she says, opportunities to include her family were important to her.
"The first week of orientation they did invite our spouses, and it really makes such a huge difference to take your kids with you through the process so that they understand what's about to happen," she says. "It's a drastic change for a lot of us as moms. I've always been the hands-on mom that has been here for the kids, helping them with homework, picking them up from school, taking them to activities. It's going to be a very drastic change."
That's why she believes it's important to have a Congress that adapts to incoming members who have kids — and not just moms, but dads, too.
"A lot of new members who are young dads, and that's changing also," she says. "Men are more and more involved in their children's lives now and it's definitely a perspective that Congress is lacking. They're not really thinking of how to adapt to a changing Congress, which includes parents of young children."
Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA)
"I was not well-known to leadership in my party or to many Members from my area when I first came into Congress, so establishing myself was a challenge," Napolitano tells Bustle. Thankfully, she says, she was "embraced by a colleague from the other side of the aisle who represented a nearby district, former Rep. David Dreier, who welcomed me."
Napolitano describes her experience as one of a handful of women of color in Congress as "overwhelming."
"The assumption was, 'Who are you? What are you doing here? You don’t have the brains to be here,'" she recalls. "I paid little attention to that, though. I came in with the expectation I was going to do my job. I was elected to represent my constituency, and that has always been my focus."
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA)
Lee recalls moving to Washington with her two sons to work as a staffer for Rep. Ron Dellums. "I was one of the only single mothers, and women of color, working in a senior staff position on the Hill. I had to work harder to prove myself," she says. "I remember being ignored in meetings made up almost entirely of white men. But Congressman Dellums supported me and encouraged me to keep pushing forward."
"Congress has gotten better — but the problem still exists," she says. "The House is a microcosm of our larger society — racism and sexism are present in many forms."
Lee thinks the "uphill battle" she's experienced in Congress has a lot to do with the legislature not being "fully representative of the American people we are elected to serve." While there have been some changes (she points to a day care center for children of staff), she hopes that Congress will "keep changing for the better."
Rep. Annie Kuster (D-NH)
"Since I was elected to Congress in 2012, I’ve been heartened to see more and more opportunities for women in leadership," Kuster says. "We’ve made important progress as a body in being more representative of the American population as a whole. We have a long way to go, but I’m excited about the many new voices joining our caucus who will continue to build on this progress."
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA)
Rep. Jackie Speier tells Bustle that she thought the sexism she experienced in the California Legislature had prepared her for joining Congress.
"My experiences in the state legislature included missing an opportunity to pass a bill by one vote when I was pregnant," she says. "I was trying to get to my Republican colleague who supported the bill to change his vote and got stuck between a desk and a barrel chair on the Assembly floor. I was very pregnant. I was also forced to wear a bulletproof vest and move my two young children into a hotel with a security detail when a man vowed to kill me for my legislation to hold deadbeat dads accountable for overdue child support and alimony payments."
Still, Speier says she was "surprised to see the depth of misogyny that persisted in our federal government, particularly in the area of military sexual assault."
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA)
Murray recalls that her first speech on the Senate floor was during a debate on the Family Medical Leave Act. "I used a good portion of my time to share a story of a friend who was sick and would be impacted by the bill," she says. "When I left the Senate floor, a male senator pulled me aside to let me know that telling personal stories wasn’t supposed to happen on the Senate floor."
Her male colleague, she says, told her that was "inappropriate," and that "we were supposed to limit ourselves to serious debate about policy issues."
"I told him that I thought he was absolutely wrong, that I was elected to be a voice for moms and to share the stories of ordinary families, and that I wasn’t going to stop," she says. "A few years later he actually apologized to me and told me that he realized how wrong he was and how important it is to highlight the real world impact of the policies we are debating."
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL)
Cheri Bustos has one word on the brain: "shoes."
"We wear heels. Men wear flats," she says. "And walking all over the marble floors of Congress, it can be a real killer."
"But in all sincerity," she tells Bustle, "although it’s been said 'If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,' I have made some of my closest girlfriends since being elected to Congress. I am fortunate to have several very close friends that often get together over dinner to talk and share stories about not only our work, but our family and friends. It is without a doubt that having amazing friends out here has helped me overcome any challenges that have come my way."
Rep.-elect Katie Hill (D-CA)
"As women, we're used to our appearances being scrutinized," Hill says. "But it wasn’t until New Member Orientation that I realized, along with a lot of other newly elected women, that this culture continues, even when we're elected members of Congress."
Specifically, she points to stringent wardrobe requirements. But that, Hill says, is only part of the issue.
"Simply, the amount of time and energy it takes for women to be camera ready and 'appropriate' far surpasses what our male colleagues spend maintaining their appearance — time that could be spent actually doing our jobs," she adds.
Many of the changes that have made Congress more hospitable toward women were only possible because women fought for it. Given the influx of women heading to Washington in January, more growth and change may soon be on the horizon. But in order to sustain that progress, women in Congress will need to grow their numbers. And that, as ever, will require supporting and empowering women to run for public office.