In November 2018, Americans elected the greatest number of women ever to seats in the House and Senate. In The Firsts: The Inside Story of The Women Reshaping Congress, award-winning journalist Jennifer Steinhauer interviews the new class of female senators and representatives, following their campaigns and first-year experiences, and comparing them with earlier trailblazing women in Congress. In the process she examines their transition to working members of Congress and the pressures they face as women, as the first people elected from underrepresented communities, as a generally younger generation than most of their peers, and as new faces changing a staid institution.
Steinhauer started her career at The New York Times while she was still a student and has been a reporter for over 25 years. She served as the paper’s City Hall bureau chief and Los Angeles bureau chief before moving to Washington in 2010 to report on Congress. She has also written a novel about the television business and two cookbooks, was a popular columnist for Food52.com for over a decade, and is a frequent contributor to the Times food section.
How did you become a congressional reporter, and who influenced you on this path?
I grew up in Kalamazoo, MI, and confess I was not a very engaged student, except perhaps in my newspaper class. I ended up being editor of the high school paper and that did indeed seed my love of journalism, and I sort of never looked back.
I was asked to cover Congress by then-executive editor Bill Keller, and I have to confess I resisted. I did not think I would be a good fit for Washington journalism writ large, or for Congress specifically. The former remains true in a lot of ways for me, but I learned to love the Hill.
I think the people who influenced me the most were early in my career: NK Kleinfield, who helped me learn to write with a voice; Geraldine Fabrikant, who was a fierce advocate for female reporters and as fearless a reporter on the phone as I have yet to meet; Janny Scott, who taught me a lot about listening. They were among the great ones.
You won a Newswoman’s Club of New York Front Page Deadline Reporting Award for your coverage of Hurricane Katrina. What aspect of reporting on Katrina affected you most?
Few days go by that I don’t think about that period in my reporting life. It was hard because I was away from my young children for a few weeks at a stretch, but it was also incredible, seeing that level of physical destruction and in some cases government abandonment. So many lines of communication had been cut that I would drive from town to town and tell people what was going on in the town 40 miles down the road. I think that experience told me that most stories have multiple layers: policy, human drama, climate, technology etc. That story went on for years in terms of rebuilding, the forever change to NOLA and even Houston.
What was your time in LA like as bureau chief?
That job was fantastic. I covered Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor as well as Southern CA, south of Bakersfield, Arizona and Nevada. It was an amazing place to cover the housing crisis because that area was the epicenter, and I did an entire series from the Inland Empire. It was probably my favorite job. Such variety, and a wonderful place to live and have young kids.
The Firsts brings up aspects of Congress that we don’t generally see in the headlines. Did you learn anything you didn’t known about Congress from your previous work?
What was most striking to me was how utterly unprepared [new] members are to do their jobs. If they are coming from the state legislature or even a small legislative body they have some background for lawmaking. But otherwise they are sort of left on their own. No one tells them how to set up an office, how many people to hire, how to write a bill, how to deal with amendments, nothing. They basically say, “Here is your benefits package and please don’t sexually harass people.”
Headlines about newer members in both the House and the Senate tend to focus on personal identity and youth, often brashness and willingness to take shortcuts with procedure, sometimes a specific agenda coming into office. Are they changing Congress’ way of doing business?
They have changed the kinds of things people talk about and sometimes the framing. I think they helped push the climate issue and ignite a new conversation about the United States’ relationship with Israel. They brought to committee rooms issues like Black maternal health that had not been front-burner issues before.
Is representing their districts’ needs taking a backseat to the hearings on Trump’s administration, or to some of their own agendas?
Most of these women are very, very connected to their districts and understand that a deep personal bond with as many voters as possible is what got them there, especially in districts where they beat Republican incumbents.
How different are The Firsts from the women who have been serving the past 10-15 years, or their counterparts from the 1960s and ’70s?
I think what makes them different in many ways is just that they are in many cases the first of their kind, and that brings new descriptive representation to the chamber. Of course being of a new generation matters too, representing very contemporary concerns and viewpoints.
Whom among the older generations of women in Congress did you most enjoy profiling?
I loved interviewing Pat Schroeder. She had amazing recall for a lot of events, like the time she was on a plane with her kids back to Denver and their pet bunny ran up and down the aisle trying to get everyone’s salad from the airplane meals. It was hard to have young kids in Congress back then. Still is, but then it was more of a novelty.
Do the Firsts share any values with their younger or newer male counterparts of either party?
A little, yeah. Being a millennial lawmaker is a very specific thing and I think they all feel that way, that they are that first. Not all of them, but many.
You have only one Republican First on the list, but you discuss the party cultural/expectation differences in campaign success or failure for women at different stages. How important was it to get a sense of her experience, and what does she share with the other Firsts?
There is an entire chapter on Republican women and the terrible challenges they are having as their numbers shrink.
Are there any names we should be more aware of?
One of the most overlooked members in my view is Rep. Sharice Davids [D-Kansas], one of the two first Native American women in Congress.
Were there any Firsts you didn’t get to interview or cover as much as you intended?
I wish I had more of Rep. Donna Shalala [D-Florida] in the book.
On a lighter note, you wrote a cookbook with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni about meatloaf! What was that like? Did you agree on a favorite?
We are very close friends. We wrote the whole thing in a Google doc as a conversation. It was very fun. We have our own favorites, but we both love the meatloaf muffins.
Jennifer Steinhauer will be discussing her book The Firsts: The Inside Story of the Women Reshaping Congress Tuesday Nov. 10 at 7:00 p.m. on Zoom as a part of the Jewish Federation’s 2020 Jewish Book Festival.
For more information, book purchases and to register for this event, go to www.jewishsgpv.org/jewish-book-festival.
Deborah Noble is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.