The historically diverse, historically female freshman class of the 116th Congress arrived in Washington this week for orientation. And already, as if starring in the Netflix buddy flick you didn’t even know you were craving, they appear to have become best friends.
“Squad,” wrote Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, captioning an Instagram photo in which she posed with Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib — her fellow newly elected U.S. congresswomen, all grinning around a conference room table.
“#DreamTeam in Congress,” wrote Tlaib, of Michigan, on a different photo of the same group.
“We did not come to play,” wrote Omar, of Minnesota, on an image of her sitting beside Pressley at an informational session.
The posts exude gratefulness and camaraderie; these women never seem to miss an opportunity to lift one another up or highlight each others’ accomplishments. “I am inspired by the incredible work she has done for her community,” wrote Sharice Davids (Kan.), one of the first two Native American women to join Congress, as she stood with her arm around Deb Haaland (N.M.), the other one.
Their affection for one another seems earnest, and these photos have inspired daydreams bordering on fan fiction. Online, hundreds of supporters have speculated what it would be like to go to coffee or to a sleepover with this particular group of elected officials. Others — not fans — have met the posts with an eyeroll, calling them juvenile or not befitting the dignity of the office.
But categorizing the posts as merely giggly “squad goals” is missing a deeper point, I think. There’s sophisticated work going into the messaging. These social media posts aren’t just about female friendship; they’re also about the behind-the-scenes strategies women in mostly male workplaces have always employed to get stuff done.
Female White House staffers in the Obama administration, for example, popularized a meeting strategy they’d dubbed “amplification.” Tired of men ignoring their ideas — or worse, claiming them as their own — they decided to reiterate the good ideas voiced by other women in the room and made sure the female creator received proper credit.
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, whose “Lean In” simultaneously empowered and exhausted millions of readers, regularly encourages women to negotiate “communally.” Women advocating for their own success are perceived as bossy or self-involved, Sandberg says, and so they should instead argue that their success will benefit the greater good.
And studies have found that women tend to thrive more in collaborative working environments than combative ones.
Baked into every one of these strategies is a common notion: that women do better when their success is sneaky. Or self-deprecating. When they emphatically thank everyone who pushed them from behind and everyone who paved the road ahead. When they — as multiple newly elected female representatives did this week — pose gratefully in front of a portrait of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress.
Compare this with Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who on Wednesday was elected House minority leader. McCarthy also has an Instagram account, with nearly 30,000 followers. A longtime public servant, he often posts pictures of himself meeting with constituents. But the image he chose to feature on election night was of himself, alone, under a giant banner: “Kevin McCarthy: Protecting our freedoms.”
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the Instagram prowess of younger digital natives with the photo choices of a 53-year-old. The point is that different messages work better for different groups of people. Both can be effective. Both can be great. But I sense that female politicians positioning themselves as individualistic, heroic protectors wouldn’t go over so well.
Why do I sense that? It’s happening already. You might have seen headlines about Ocasio-Cortez — the midterm’s biggest breakout star, who ousted a 10-term incumbent in the New York primary — joining activists in protest at Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office. Immediately, pundits, both armchair and television, portrayed this as a catfight or rebellion: Ocasio-Cortez was immature and showboating; Pelosi (D-Calif.), the presumptive speaker of the House, wasn’t a strong enough leader to keep her people under control.
But what Ocasio-Cortez actually told assembled activists was far from combative: “Should Leader Pelosi become the next speaker of the House, we need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen.”
She spoke of her “admiration” for the veteran politician and praised Pelosi’s “civic engagement.”
The young women who have come to Congress have come to elevate, praise and admire one another. Not because they’re immature fangirls but because this coalition-building is their best hope for success in what remains, at its core, another mostly male workplace.
I keep thinking about an exchange recounted by the New York Times a few days ago, in which Haaland ran into a male Republican congressman in the elevator. “I’m sure we’ll be at each others’ throats eventually,” he told her.
“I don’t think so,” she replied, apparently surprised.
It didn’t sound like someone ready to fight to win. It was the response of someone who’d rather find a more productive path than fighting.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society.