There are 36 freshman women serving in the 116th Congress, more than ever before. So far, the media has focused on just a few of them.
The new congresswomen with the highest profiles and the largest social media followings — Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and, of course, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — are politically progressive. They hail from solidly blue districts, serving constituents hungry for bold, leftist policies.
“If there is anything I resent, it’s the media narrative that all the freshman congresswomen are a bunch of lefties,” said Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), who won in a district that had been represented by a Republican for 30 years. “There are probably three or four true ‘lefties.’ But you couldn’t win in my district like that. You couldn’t win in my state like that. You can’t win the country like that.”
I’ve spent the last three months following and interviewing some of the right and center freshman congresswomen whom we haven’t heard much about.
I drove seven hours across the New Mexican desert with Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.) and felt the earth shake under a herd of buffalo at Rep. Carol Miller’s West Virginia farm. In all, I interviewed six new members of Congress: five moderate Democrats who won seats in formerly Republican districts, and Miller, the lone Republican woman in the freshman class. Meet them below.
Read The Lily’s full series on the freshman congresswomen, “Right & Center.”
Xochitl Torres Small grew up along the U.S.-Mexico border, with a strong spiritual connection to the land. A rare moderate voice in the national border debate, she is trying to get the two sides to talk.
“All these very intimate moments are connected to the land. You feel that spirit here.”
Carol Miller raises buffalo deep in the Appalachian mountains and sells the meat at a local organic grocery store. In 2018, she campaigned as a staunch supporter of President Trump.
“We had one bull who kept jumping the gate, so he became jerky. He was from Texas.”
For eight years, Donna Shalala was the secretary of health and human services under President Clinton. She left politics for academia, then decided to come back, becoming the oldest freshman congresswoman in history.
“I know what a new idea is because I know what the old ideas are.”
Katie Hill ran what she called “the most millennial campaign ever.” Quick to get personal, she spoke about her experience grappling with whether to get an abortion in a Facebook video that went viral.
“I’ve been pro-choice my whole life, but when I was actually faced with that decision, I realized how profoundly hard it was to make the decision to have an abortion.”
Chrissy Houlahan was the quintessential success story of the first Women’s March: An Air Force veteran with no prior political experience, she marched, then ran for office and won. Her two adult daughters were by her side the whole way.
“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, [my oldest daughter] gave me a pack of my own.”
The second-youngest congresswoman ever, Abby Finkenauer had been laying the groundwork for her congressional run since middle school. She subscribed to Newsweek at 10, became a congressional page at 16 and ran for the Iowa state House at 24.
“In sixth grade ... I was Al Gore against two George Bushes, because no one would go up against me by themselves.”
I talked to the congresswomen about why they ran, and how they are affected by certain aspects of their identity: their politics, age and gender. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts from our conversations.
Torres Small: I’ve had a lot of people ask why I’m not more prominent in the news. They want to see me being a part of what’s going on in Washington. They want to be able to cheer me on. But sometimes it’s hard to find a way to do that, in a way that reflects the complexity of my district. The things I say are harder to express in a clear, simple way [than the things the more progressive freshman congresswomen say]. I think there are definitely folks who want to see more moderates ... more problem-solving, bridge-oriented voices ... but there is a reason why I think the bridges sometimes don’t want to speak up.
Houlahan: 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. I needed to find a way to help my child not be afraid — to return to her community, to return to her country.
Torres Small: [Brain drain] became one of my most common discussions: Why is everyone abandoning home? There was this feeling of untapped potential [in rural New Mexico]. This feeling that there is so much to love, but it’s still a place where people are growing up in poverty, where they have trouble realizing their dreams. I wanted to help here.
Shalala: You know, I just turned on the television, and I got pissed off. I was so devastated when Hillary lost. ... And I was so angry at what was going on in Washington. I had been following the [2018 congressional] race in my district. … The Democrats had some very fine people running, but I didn’t think any of them could actually flip the seat.
Shalala: I don’t think age has anything to do with anything. I actually don’t. My mother lived to be 103. She practiced law into her 90s.
The people I ran against, who were all younger than me, kept talking about new ideas. And I kept saying, what are they? Tell me what they are. Show me. Medicare-for-all? That’s not a new idea: Single-payer has been around forever. Socialized medicine? That started with Franklin Roosevelt. Abolishing ICE? That’s not an idea; it’s a complaint about the policies of the Trump administration, which I agree with. I’d say to them, “I know what a new idea is because I know what the old ideas are.”
Hill: I’ve been in leadership positions from a very young age. Whatever job I was in, I got promoted pretty quickly, over people who were older than me or who I was peers with. So I had to get comfortable owning that and earn respect that had nothing to do with my age or even my experience. It’s something I learned on the campaign trail, too: You have to be completely confident or at least appear completely confident, so people aren’t thinking about your age.
Finkenauer: When I’d go out knocking on doors during my campaigns, I think some people thought I was selling Girl Scout cookies. So sometimes my age helped because they would actually open the door.
And sometimes the bar was low. I didn’t hide the fact that I had a bunch of student loan debt and was renting a house and had no money of my own to put into the campaign. ... I didn’t have the picket fence, I wasn’t married ... all of the things. They’d see me and think, “Well, what could she know?” Then I could talk to them about education policy and the importance of investing in trade schools and apprenticeships. Because this was all stuff I’d worked on and I knew.
Miller: I am a woman. It defines me as far as my DNA, but that’s just who I am. I’ve never made a big deal out of it. I just enjoy being a human being. It wouldn’t have made any difference [if I were a man]. I might have been 6-foot-3 as opposed to 5-8 and a half.
Hill: I had several people say, “I’m sorry, I don’t think a woman can beat [the Republican incumbent] Steve Knight.” One person said it directly to my face; others said it in email. One of those people was in Democratic Party leadership. I said: “Thank you very much. I’ll see you on the other side.”... And I did.
Hill: It’s very archaic. The other day, I had a member who said something that was just so dumb. He said it as a joke, but it was a sexual comment. And I was just like, “You can’t say those kinds of things anymore.”
We were talking about one-minute speeches on the floor. And I called him “Mr. One Minute” or “One Minute Man,” or something. I didn’t even think about it that way, but he was like, “I can also be Mr. Five Minute Man or Mr. Whatever Minute Man You Want.” It was in front of people, and the rest of us were all looking at each other. One of my young colleagues said, “Well, that took a turn.”
I mean, it’s a man’s world here. That’s changing, but we’re still vastly outnumbered.