This piece is part of The Lily’s Right & Center project. Read the rest of the series here.
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) is the quintessential success story of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. Many women returned home from the march, signs and “pussyhats” in hand, looking for new ways to make a difference in their communities. Houlahan ran for Congress — and won.
Like many of the freshman women in the 116th Congress, Houlahan had no political experience and had never run for elected office before launching her 2018 congressional campaign. But after taking what she called an “inventory” of her particular skills and experiences — serving in the Air Force, running a business, teaching at local schools — she decided she could be a good fit for government. I talked to the congresswoman about her decision to commit to a brand-new career at age 50 and the daughters who helped persuade her to put her name on the ballot. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: Take me back to January 2017. Tell me about your day at the Women’s March.
Chrissy Houlahan: When I first heard rumblings about the Women’s March, I was with my mother, who is my spirit animal on all things feminist. She realized she was going to be overseas when the march happened, and she was devastated she couldn’t go. So she said, “Hey, listen: If I help arrange a bus, will you fill it?” I’m a pretty introverted person with a very close circle of friends who I can count on one hand. So the idea of filling a big bus seemed pretty daunting.
The night before, we had a sign-decorating party at our house.
By the time we pulled out of the bus station, 53 seats were filled, and we had a waiting list.
CK: Coming out of that day, did you know you would be a candidate?
CH: I was pretty sure. I have this expression that I challenge my kids with: “The highest, best use.” I’ll ask them, what do you care about? What are your passions for? And how can you use those for the highest and best use possible? When I was distraught by the election result, I thought, well, if I’m going to ask my children to do this, I should do it myself.
CK: You have two adult daughters who were fairly active in your campaign. How did they help shape your candidacy?
CH: My oldest daughter, Molly, didn’t come out of her room for days after the 2016 election. She is LGBT, but presents like a heterosexual woman. And so I thought, if I’m afraid, and I’m a 50-year-old white lady from the suburbs, and she’s afraid, and she’s a 26-year-old white girl from the suburbs … think about all the people who must now be really afraid to walk out the door every day.
As a mom, your first job is to protect your children. If I feel as though my child feels afraid in her own house, even though she’s a grown-up, then I’ve failed.
CK: How did your daughters show up for you on the campaign trail?
CH: They supported me in a lot of the same ways I supported them growing up. My youngest made signs for my call-time room that said things like, “When you feel like quitting, remember why you started.” When my daughters were little and they had to take standardized tests, I would give them “magical” glitter pencils that I would kiss for good luck. On my first day in office, Molly gave me a pack of my own.
CK: What kind of career did you imagine for yourself when you graduated from college?
CH: I went to Stanford because I wanted to be an astronaut. I went into the Air Force because the best way to be an astronaut was to be a pilot first. I got offered a pilot slot, but at that point my now-husband and I were two years into our relationship. I was the kid of a military pilot and the grandchild of a military pilot, so I knew being a pilot would mean dragging my then-aspiring-banker husband from base to base for 10- to 12 years.
CK: So what did you do?
CH: I chose not to take a pilot slot — for him, and for us. Thirty years later — we’ve been married almost 30 years — I do think it was the right choice. But it was definitely a choice I had to make.
CK: Was it a hard decision?
CH: I didn’t think it was hard … which was probably stupid of me, now that I think about it, because he didn’t think I was that important at the time. (We didn’t even talk about getting married for another three years.) I hardly told anyone I’d been offered the pilot slot. My parents knew, but I didn’t share it with [my future husband].
CK: After three years in the Air Force, you changed course, and went to graduate school to study technology and policy at MIT. Why did you decide to leave the Air Force?
CH: When I had my first child, Molly, I only had six weeks of maternity leave. And there was a six-month waiting list for child care on the Air Force base. My base was in Boston, which of course is an expensive area, and my salary wouldn’t cover child care in the civilian sector. I think the expectation was that most people on active duty were men, and the spouses were women who would be taking care of the children. But that wasn’t my situation. And so pretty quickly, I thought, ‘This isn’t working.’ I got into graduate school, so I figured I could find a way through in the civilian economy. Which is a tragedy.
CK: Have those policies changed in the last 30 years?
CH: No. I looked into it: They’re still the same. Now that I’m in Congress, it’s something I’m hoping I might be able to help change.