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Honoring Women’s History: Members of the 117th Congress Share Insights on the Past, Present, and Future of Progress

On March 2, the John W. Kluge Center and the Library of Congress Congressional Relations Office hosted West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito and Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee for conversations with Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden on each of their history-making roles as women in US government. This event was part of the celebrations of Women’s History Month held by the Library of Congress and the Kluge Center.

Capito began by recounting her upbringing and path to power. She received some early exposure to political life through her father, who served as a member of Congress and later as Governor of West Virginia. After working briefly in medicine and education, and then spending some time focusing on raising her children, Capito became interested in local politics, and ran for election to the West Virginia House of Delegates. She won that election, and continued on to the US Congress and then the US Senate.

Capito drew inspiration, she said, from her mother’s work as first lady of West Virginia on literacy and mental health issues. The fact that her parents raised Capito and her siblings without gendered expectations about what careers they would enter had a major impact on her plans in life, she said.

But the big legislative victories aren’t the most important motivations for holding office, according to Capito. “It’s really the small things,” that are truly exciting, she said. “It’s helping that one family adopt a child from out of the country… It’s nominating the young man that goes to West Point and you go to Afghanistan and he’s flying your helicopter.”

Capito talked about the importance of women in Congress getting together socially across party lines and sharing their experiences. “Nothing goes out of the room,” she said of the meetings, “we don’t talk about any divisive issues at all, and we pretty much don’t get into issues. It’s a real personal kind of gathering,” where members can discuss issues where they can find common ground, as well as their personal lives.

Hayden pointed out that legislators getting to know each other on a personal level allows them to better understand where each other is coming from when heated debates do arise. She also added that unfair expectations still exist, like a woman who speaks and acts forcefully being perceived negatively while a man who does so might be seen as a strong leader.

Capito said that this kind of connection has resulted in legislation, often on a bipartisan basis. She and Senator Amy Klobuchar have worked together on rural broadband and combatting eating disorders, Capito said, and she and Senator Elizabeth Warren collaborated on legislation addressing opioid prescribing.

For the second part of the event, Dr. Hayden spoke with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. Lee discussed the history of women in Congress, noting that for much of the institution’s history, only one or two women served at a time, often replacing spouses who served before them. Jackson Lee recalled being inspired by some of the women who did serve, like Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan, and Lindy Boggs. The year of 1992, sometimes called the “year of the woman,” was a major turning point, Lee said, when Carol Moseley Braun became the first Black woman elected to the US Senate. But “the numbers were still very small,” she added.

Jackson Lee said that her own involvement in politics began in school. She recalled being told that as a woman she shouldn’t run for vice president of the student government, and being pushed to run for secretary instead. “It was a life-changing experience,” she said. In law school, Jackson Lee said, she was one of very few Black women, and wanted to be a judge rather than a legislator. After practicing law for some time and becoming a judge, Jackson Lee took an opportunity to run for a seat on the Houston, Texas city council in 1989. And in 1994 she was first elected to the US Congress.

The pandemic illustrated the stark inequality that women still face in terms of childcare, Jackson Lee said, as the impacts of school closures fell more heavily on mothers than fathers. Action to lower the cost of childcare, she said, would be a step towards greater equality. “We still have so many miles to travel in the course of full equality,” Jackson Lee said, adding that she always looks to see what kind of impact she could have on the lives of women in America through legislation. “I’d like to see us as more corporate CEOs, more members of the board of corporations,” Jackson Lee said, as well as having a first woman president of the United States.

Being Black and being a woman “have their own independent journeys,” Jackson Lee said, adding that she has “a strong affinity for social justice issues,” on the Judiciary Committee. “You have to cure some of the continuing discriminatory practices by law and by social affinity.” In the bipartisan women’s caucus, Jackson Lee said, they look at disparities for women in health care as well as “disparities in the black maternal mortality rate.”

To learn more from Dr. Hayden, Congresswoman Jackson Lee, and Senator Capito, watch the full event here.

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