Berkeley Talks transcript: Portraits of power: Women of the 116th Congress

Christine Trost: Good afternoon and welcome to today’s event, “Women of the 116th Congress Portraits of Power.” My name is Christine Trost and I’m the executive director of the Institute of Governmental Studies and Director of the Robert T. Mitsui Center for Politics and Public Service at the University of California, Berkeley. IGS and the Mitsui Center are sponsoring this event. I would also like to thank our co-sponsor, the Center for Race and Gender, for their support. In a moment, I will introduce professor Kathryn Pearson who will be moderating today’s event.

Before I do, I’d like to point out several announcements posted in the chat. On Tuesday, Oct. 13th, from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m Pacific time, IGS and the Mitsui Center will host a live Zoom webinar, entitled “Leading the Way: Community Empowerment and Social Change.” And that event will feature a conversation between former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and Congress member Karen Bass, and it’s part of IGSs Annual Boxer Lecture series. So if you’re interested, please click on the link provided in the chat to learn more and register for this event.

In the chat you will also find instructions for how to join our mailing list and receive announcements about upcoming events and activities sponsored by IGS and the Mitsui Center. Finally, if you would like to ask a question during today’s event, please use the Q and A function if you are part of the Zoom webinar or post your question in the chat if you are watching on YouTube. We will try to get to as many of your questions as possible. It is now my pleasure to introduce our moderator, Kathryn Pearson, who is associate professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on the United States Congress, congressional elections, political parties and women in politics. Her scholarship has been published in leading academic journals and she’s the author of the book Party Discipline in the House of Representatives published by the University of Michigan Press in 2015.

She’s also currently working on a new book entitled Gendered Partisanship in the House of Representatives, which analyzes congresswomens’ pursuit of power in a partisan era. She has won awards for her scholarship and for her teaching. And she’s also spent a considerable amount of time living, working and researching in Washington, DC. From 2002 to 2003, she was a research fellow at the Brookings Institution. And from 1993 to 1998, she worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant for two Congresswomen. Professor Pearson also has deep ties to IGS and she received her Ph.D. in political science from UC Berkeley. We are absolutely delighted that she is able to join us to lead today’s event. Welcome professor Pearson.

Kathryn Pearson: Thank you, Christine. It’s great to be back in Berkeley, even if only virtually. A record number of women serve in the U.S. Congress, 26 in the Senate and 105 in the house, including four delegates. A record 47 women of color serving the two chambers. In 2018, 36 women were elected to the house and four women were elected to the Senate for the first time, ushering in the most diverse Congress to date, including the youngest African American woman elected to the house. The first two female Muslim lawmakers and the first two native American female lawmakers. Photo-journalist Elizabeth Biz Herman made a pitch to the New York Times to photograph all of the women in the 116th Congress. Along with Celeste Lohman, Biz photographed 130 women in six days and then worked with photo editors Marisa Schwartz Taylor and Beth Flynn to put together print and online additions with 27 different covers one for each region of the country.

And ultimately the recently published New York Times book, The Women of the 116th Congress: Portraits of Power that we’re discussing today. So I am delighted to moderate today’s panel featuring Congresswomen Lauren Underwood and Jackie Speier and Marisa Schwartz Taylor and Biz Herman. I first want to introduce the panelists. Marisa Schwartz Taylor is the Washington Bureau editor, photo editor at the New York Times covering government and politics. She previously worked at the Washington Post and Time. Her visual journalism has been published in the New York Times, National Geographic, Al Jazeera, the Washington Post and time. Marisa attended Parson School of Design and graduated with a BFA in photography, minoring in culture and media studies.

Elizabeth Biz Herman is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. She studies international relations and political behavior, and her research focuses on the ways in which major events, be they personal traumas or national tragedies impact social cohesion and identity. In addition to her academic research, Biz is an Emmy-nominated photojournalist and a regular contributor to the New York Times. I’ll also briefly introduce the two congresswoman who will be joining us. And so when they pop on, we’ll be able to ask them questions right away. Congresswoman Jackie Speier represents California’s 14th Congressional District, including the Southern portion of San Francisco and San Mateo County. She serves on the House Armed Services Committee, chairs the Military Personnel sub-committee and serves on the Intelligence Committee and Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Speier is also the co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, the Congressional Armenian Caucus, the Bipartisan Task Force to end sexual violence and the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. Representative Speier has served in Congress since 2008. A champion of women’s rights, Speier was named to Newsweek‘s list of 150 fearless women in the world and one of Politico’s 50 most influential people in American politics for bringing MeToo reckoning to Congress.

Congresswoman Lauren Underwood was first elected in 2018 and she represents Illinois’ 14th Congressional District. She is the first woman, the first person of color and the first millennial to represent her community in Congress. And she is the youngest African American woman to serve in the US house of representatives. Congressman Underwood serves on the house committee on education and labor, on veterans affairs and she is the vice chair of the house committee on Homeland Security. She co-founded and co-chairs the Black Maternal Health Caucus which elevates the black maternal health crisis within Congress and advances policy solutions to improve maternal health outcomes. Prior to her election to Congress, Congresswoman Underwood worked with a Medicaid plan in Chicago to ensure that it provided high quality cost efficient care and she served as a senior advisor at the US department of health and human services. Representative, Speier and Underwood will join us as soon as their congressional schedules permit.

So, I’ll start now with questions for Biz and Marisa. Your work is incredible. The portraits bring to life 130 of the women members of the house in Senate, capturing the racial, ethnic and generational diversity of the Congresswoman. The portraits portray power, leadership, strength and courage, and also beauty, but not by traditional standards. On a personal note, as a political scientist who studies women in Congress, I find your work incredibly moving and empowering, and I’m very grateful to show your work to my elementary school age son and daughter. So to start, we would love to hear what inspired you to capture this moment in history.

Thank you all for having us, this is a real honor to get to be here with all of you. And I see that the Congresswoman have joined us. So I don’t mind if we skip the queue to ask their questions now. And also, being able to work with them and create this work with Marisa and create this project. I’m going to defer to the Congresswoman so we could make the best use of their time and then we’ll come back to talking about the project afterwards, if that works well.

Terrific. Terrific. Thank you. Congresswoman Speier, thank you so much for joining us. I’ve already introduced you and I want to get right to our discussion, by first asking you what your experience was like being photographed and can you tell us about the document that you were holding and the pin that you were wearing?

Jackie Speier: So it was a remarkable piece of photo journalism and congratulations to Elizabeth Herman again. I actually have the book on my desk. Many of my colleagues have actually had all of their colleagues sign it. If you look at this particular picture, you’ll see that I’m holding a document from the Light of the U.S. archives and it’s the Equal Rights document. And then the pin I’m wearing makes the point that 53%, 53.5% of the population is female. So that was the message I was trying to convey in that particular photograph. I’m the author of the Equal Rights amendment extension that would allow us to get it in the constitution. As you probably are all aware, it was the late justice Scalia that was asked the question, does the constitution require discrimination based on sex? And he said, “No, but there’s nothing in the constitution that guarantees a woman’s protections.”

And so this is a very important message to convey to your children and to my children and to the next generation. I also want to point out that I’m sitting in the Lindy Boggs room in the Capitol right now. And if you put me back live you will see that the photograph behind me is of Jeannette Rankin, who was the very first woman to serve in the house of representatives. She voted against World War I and promptly lost her seat. And then she came back to Congress again and was re-elected and then voted against World War II and was promptly terminated as a member of Congress. So I think having more women is probably going to keep us in a greater peace time environment as well.

Kathryn Pearson: Great, thank you. Representative Underwood, thank you very much for joining us and please share your experience just after being elected, being photographed and also viewing the photos of all your new women colleagues in the house in Senate.

Lauren Underwood: Yes. So it was pretty remarkable because I believe these photos were taken the day before swearing in which happened to be the first full day that I had in my office. My new office here in the Capitol where I’m sitting right now, literally, January one is a holiday, the first day of the New Year. January two, I walk in and they tell me we have this photo shoot and they’re photographing every woman in Congress and we were going to recreate these iconic images from past male presidents. And I was like, okay, I just sort of like went with it. It’s like, sure, that sounds great. And then the next day was swearing in. And so it was just this really busy, intense time. The photos were taken in really a small room in the Capitol, but they had divided it up into maybe four or five women being photographed at the same time.

So while I was there, Ayanna Pressley was there and I think maybe two other women and I had Biz, I’m pretty sure because she says, “Oh, I have special plans for you. I need you to sit this specific way and just lean in for me.” And I was like, “Really? This is not how I usually take photos.” And she’s like, “Don’t smile,” which also went against my natural inclination. And then we came out with this iconic photo, which hangs in my office. I love it so much. And I’m just honored because I’m from Illinois and Abraham Lincoln is just this pillar of wisdom and we are all so proud of him and this photo, I think stunned so many people in my community. It really said that change had come to Washington and it in a time where a lot of people were paying attention to what we were doing in Congress, just this photo itself made such a statement. And I had complete faith in our photographers that they had a vision to execute and I’m just grateful to be able to be included, with so many visionary inspiring groundbreaking women in 116th Congress.

Kathryn Pearson: Terrific. Thank you. While we’re talking, the class of 2018, those new members elected in 2018 included 36 new women, 35 of them Democrats and beyond returning Democrats to the majority party, how have the women in your class changed the institution?

Lauren Underwood: Oh, well, I would say the loudest, boldest, most powerful voices coming out of Washington have been the voices of women. And the way that we collectively have reframed the conversation about where this country is going, has really, I think, been jarring for some of those who have been in like the power class in Washington for decades. And with the exception of our great speaker Pelosi, those voices have often been women of color, which is another layer of difference. And so, how have we made a mark? I think everything’s different now that our class is here. We lowered the average age of Congress. We are certainly the most diverse Congress in history now and bring a renewed vigor and energy because we all took these hard pivots out of our lives, right? Like this was not the next natural step in our careers, left families, great jobs, our communities to come and serve our country during this time. We are not sitting around for 30 years to try to become chairmen, right?

Like we are here to get something done right now. And that’s just a different perspective than some others have had when they came into this institution. And so I think that our approach to the work is different.

Kathryn Pearson: Great, thank you so much. Congresswoman Speier, political scientists use data to show that women in Congress make a difference in the legislative process, whether it’s putting new items on the agenda, discussing women’s interests during debate and committees and on the house floor or introducing bills on issues that affect women. Your own work on sexual assault, reproductive rights and bringing MeToo to Congress are actually examples that I share with my students in class to talk about how Congress women make a difference. What has your experience been like fighting for women’s rights in a chamber that is more than 75% male and can you share with the audience ways in which you see Congresswomen legislating differently than your male colleagues?

Jackie Speier: Well, first of all, let me also say how honored I am to be with Lauren in this program.

Lauren Underwood: As well Jackie.

Jackie Speier: She is a superstar. She just makes me feel very old when I realized that she’s the youngest woman of color, I guess, to serve in Congress. I’m sure I’m not the oldest woman, but I’m working towards that. I think it’s important to point out that there have only been 359 women in total that have served in Congress. I mean, we almost take it as commonplace cause you see our speaker Nancy Pelosi on TV constantly, but the truth is that there’s only been 359 and there’ve only been 78 women of color. So as small a number as we are, we have made some profound changes. And I think that part of what we do is give voice to the voiceless. When I first started working on sexual assault in the military, I started telling their stories on the floor of the house, that is a huge megaphone.

And while I’m still working on it, 10 years later, we’ve just introduced the, I am Vanessa Guillen bill to honor the life of a young soldier who was murdered and dismembered at Fort Hood. And we are going to rid the military of the sexual harassment and sexual assault epidemic that’s going on.

Kathryn Pearson: Thank you. And you have served in Congress since 2008, and how do you view Congress changing as an institution during that time? And what is the role of Congresswoman been in changing the institution?

Jackie Speier: I think it’s been profound. I mean, we have more women serving as chairs of committee. And I think we bring issues to the fore that would not have been considered, but for the fact that we are women, whether its sexual assault, the MeToo Movement, Equal Rights Amendment, Title IX issues, the issue of the young woman who was assaulted at Stanford University, we had men and women coming to the house forward to read her statement that she gave to the court and that wouldn’t have happened I think if there weren’t the women in the house, but we were then joined by many of the men, which was very powerful and men on both sides of the aisle, I might add.

Lauren Underwood: Can I add one thing too? What Jackie Speier has done also is helped clean house you’re in Congress to make sure that our workplace is someplace where we lead with our values and it’s not just among members of Congress, but also to protect congressional staff. And I think that, that’s so important because you asked how have we made an impact and it’s so easy for people to not look inward and to excuse some behavior that may happen in our own institutions, in our own offices. And she’s been like the leading on efforts to make sure that Congress is a model workplace and I’m grateful to be able to work with her on those issues and certainly for the impact that we’ve had.

Kathryn Pearson: Great. Great, thank you, Congresswoman. And we have a question for you from our audience and that is what ideas do you have on how to better attract more women of color to politics?

Lauren Underwood: Well, I think that women of color are already attracted to politics. That’s not the issue, girlfriends, we need you to run. That’s really the barrier. And so, there’s all of this data and evidence that shows that women need to be asked to run for office, so consider this from me, being your asked. So now everybody’s been asked. And so now we just have to do it because we know that when women run, we win in equal numbers as men. And we also know that communities are excited to lift up our voices and support our candidacies and that we can win everywhere. And so, this perceived ceiling on either the types of positions you can run for, or the types of districts that you can represent, I think that our class of 2018 has refrained the idea of what representation may look like from certain communities. And certainly, who can be a representative, right? If I as a 32 year old black woman can’t get elected to this institution, I think that, that hold down our democracy.

Jackie Speier: Can I just add to that as well? Lauren said it very well, but there is no magic to running for office. And if you have the fire in your belly and you are authentic in the way you present yourself, you have all that it takes. And most women are attracted to run for public office because of an issue. And Lauren certainly if she could speak for herself, it was the Affordable Care Act, was one of the reasons that she felt compelled to run. Lots of women made that their reason for wanting to run and whatever the issue is, it can be very, very effective. People trust women more than men. And that’s something to keep in mind as well. So there’s no magic, you just got to go out and do it.

Kathryn Pearson: Great. Thank you. This is for both of you, but we’ll start with Congresswoman Speier and that is looking at the collection of photos in the book, it’s just incredibly powerful all of these Congresswomen. And so I’m wondering, how do you think congresswoman’s collaboration has changed since 2008, maybe within parties, across the aisle? One of the things that is also clear from looking at all the photos is that there are many fewer Republicans than Democrats. In fact, in the house, there are actually only 13 Republican Congresswomen, so what does that mean for collaboration across the aisle? And then what is collaboration like within the democratic party?

Jackie Speier: Now, one of the stunning results of the 2018 election was the number of women who are Republican members that lost or left. Many of them retired because frankly there was no pathway to leadership or to being affective. So they went from something like 23 down to 13 and there’s an effort underway by the Republican women who are now serving, to try and increase those numbers. And hopefully that will happen. One of the things that’s happened since 2008, we’ve actually created a democratic woman’s caucus and it’s become a powerful force to raise policy issues. And we just recently now, have introduced a resolution to have us create a feminist foreign policy agenda for our country, much like many other countries have done. And that takes us to that whole piece focus that I think has got to be much more part of who we are.

And also look at some of the issues that have historically been women’s issues. They’re not women’s issues, they’re economic issues. I mean, if you look at childcare, for instance, it’s the underpinning of our economy. And the fact that COVID has created this environment now that we’ve lost a significant number of childcare slots of childcare workers, it is going to be a profound factor in how this economy rebounds, unless we make a commitment to do what other countries have done and create universal childcare and universal pre-care for our kids.

Kathryn Pearson: Great, thank you. This is a question from the audience for both congresswomen, with the recent passing of justice Ginsburg and amidst all the social and political unrest, which we are experiencing and with the Trump administration and majority leader, McConnell’s positioning of the Senate, to see the Supreme court pushback in historical time, in what ways are the women of the 116th Congress currently mobilizing efforts locally and nationally?

Jackie Speier: Well, I’ll start as one of the co-chairs to the Democratic Women’s Caucus, we’re in the process of sending a letter to Mitch McConnell, underscoring all the reasons why the president’s pick to step in the shoes of a Ruth Bader Ginsburg is really an offense because, well I have great admiration for judge Barrett in terms of her personal story. I think her public story and where she stands on issues that affect women is profoundly antithetical to justice Ginsburg. So we are going to convey that. Unfortunately, the timing is such, and this is being rammed through in the manner that it is, that we don’t have the traction nor the time to accomplish what I think we would have tried to accomplish under normal circumstances. So it really requires us moving forward, to redouble our efforts to make sure that the Supreme court is representative and reflective of the vast majority of women in our country.

Kathryn Pearson: Thank you. Congresswoman Underwood.

Lauren Underwood: I’ll just say that, we understand that the impact of this Supreme court nomination, impact on our health care, for example, and women across America have listed healthcare as their number one issue. In the upcoming election it was the number one issue. In 2018 election, women are a rising power block within the electorate. And I think that as members of Congress, we can speak on behalf of the women in America to bring voice to this critical issue that impacts all of our lives. I think the other piece is, it’s a reminder to us as we legislate to make the most of every single moment, to be aggressive at our agenda, to make sure that we aren’t assuming that we have more time to do the work that we need to do on behalf of the American people.

I’ve been surprised in Congress that oftentimes we run towards the most controversial items first and that there are a lot of things that we do agree on, on both sides of the aisle. Today I led the debate on, I think, six or seven cybersecurity and Homeland security bills that passed the house unanimously. Things about white supremacy and cybersecurity and how we plan for workforce issues, but also paid parental leave and having lactation centers in airports consistently around things that would have been considered like women’s issues.

We are on September 30th and some of these things are just being heard, right? And so I think that part of the challenge for us and the Congress is to reframe the way that we order our work and maybe run towards those items where there is consensus, where we can demonstrate to the American people that we are being productive on their behalf. And then, that leaves time for us to also strategize around these things that are actually controversial so that we can have fully fleshed out plans to protect our core civil rights and civil liberties.

Kathryn Pearson: Representative Underwood, we have a question here from a constituent, as a constituent of Illinois, 7th congressional district, you are among the most prominent members of our congressional delegation. Would you speak to how you have been able to navigate the tricky balance between your national profile and the focus on your home district? Thank you.

Lauren Underwood: Ooh, that’s a challenge. Yes ma’am. But here’s what I know. I know that I bring my authentic self to my work. And so there are some issues that I think are more of interest nationally. For example, the Black Maternal Health Caucus, is a national issue. Black women are three to four times more likely to die at childbirth, but you can guess what? At home in Illinois, black women are six times more likely to die than white women over pregnancy related complication. So we can have a conversation that’s based locally or nationally, but have the opportunity to have relevant examples so that people understand the value in the work that we’re doing. It’s to me very much about maintaining a dialogue with my community, letting them know that I share their values, that I’m going to continue to show up for that.

And then when speaking to them can explain the breadth of the work that we’re doing here in the Congress. And I think that our community understands what it means to be a member of the Congress. You’re working on a range of issues that touch communities all across this country and they expect us to be leaders in that way.

Kathryn Pearson:
Thank you. Representative Speier, as you look back on the past 12 years, since April of 2008, what has been the most challenging and the most gratifying aspects of serving in Congress?

Jackie Speier: I think the most gratifying has been the opportunity to give voice to the voiceless. I remember standing on the house floor when there was an effort by the Republicans after they had taken over the house. And the very first bill they introduced was defund planned parenthood. And a colleague of mine on the Republican side was standing there reading from a book and talking about the process when you go through a second trimester abortion. And I was so disheartened by what he said and so outraged by what he said, that I stood up and then talked about my abortion, my second trimester abortion and the experience that I had undergone. And it was, I remember walking off the floor shaking and the remarkable John Lewis was standing in the back of the chamber and said to me that it was one of the most profound speeches he had heard on the floor. And then he told me the story and he almost had tears in his eyes.

His aunt was with them, staying at their home and she was brought down the stairs in her nightgown that was bloody, and taken to the hospital and never seen again. And she was the victim of a back alley abortion and we’re not going back to that. So certainly that experience was very profound. The work that we’ve all done on sexual assault is really important because we have moved the needle. And so that’s been very gratifying as well.

Kathryn Pearson: Thank you.

Lauren Underwood: Thank you all so much, I have to go run and vote. It’s been an honor. Thank you so much Biz for including me in the book and thank you Jackie for just being such an amazing [inaudible].

Jackie Speier: Thank you, Lauren.

Kathryn Pearson: Thank you so much representative Underwood. Thank you.

Jackie Speier: I’m going to have to go vote soon, too. We’re down to 60 members that haven’t voted yet and it’s on the Uighur labor camps in China, but if you have any other questions that I … Elizabeth, can I just say to you again, what a profound gift to the country and to generations of young women and older women, who like the work you did was absolutely magnificent.

Elizabeth Herman: Thank you Congresswoman.

Kathryn Pearson: Congresswoman Speier, thank you so much.

Jackie Speier: My great pleasure. Thank you.

Kathryn Pearson: Thank you. Okay, that was awesome hearing from outstanding Congresswoman featured of course in the book. And so now I would like to turn and ask Biz and Melisa about their experiences. Just incredible. So I guess to start, I’d love to hear more about what inspired you to capture this moment in history.

Elizabeth Herman: Yeah. So I mean, this is I think the thing that we think about when we think about power sort of is what drove this and what drove this conversation and Marisa unbeknownst to me, there were conversations going on at the times about how to sort of visualize this new historic class of women that had just been elected into power. And the idea that sort of like was starting to cohere both independently at the Times and sort of in my brain was thinking about how have we thought about power in the past? How do we visualize and how do we, when we close our eyes and we think about what a politician looks like, what comes up? And I often think of these images when I think of what … Like if you had to think about what you would see in a textbook or what you would see on the walls of Congress, these are the kinds of images. The images on the left are the ones that you would see.

Elizabeth Herman: But that no longer was reflective of what actually power looked like with the new group of women and the new Congress that had been elected in 2018. So in trying to think about how we could not to history, not to how we had conceived of power in the past and then acknowledge how it looked different in present, this is sort of the idea that we came upon and it was really a collaborative conversation as it sort of developed over the course of a very short couple of weeks, right around the aftermath of the 2018 elections.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: One thing that we really wanted to do with the project was show the scale, the number of the women that were elected, especially with the New York Times, we had been following the 2018 elections and we knew that there were a record number of women who were running and once election day came to pass, we found out that a lot of these women had actually won their races and been elected to Congress. We wanted to figure out a way to show readers who those people were and show the numbers, but also show the women as individuals. And what I feel like these pictures really accomplish is that they let each woman express power in her own way. We kind of created the backdrop and the powerful setting, but each woman really shines on their own in the image.

You can see that some women show their power through smiling and giving off that energy while others are much more serious there, it’s about body language, but I feel like you really get to see who that person is as an individual and also get a sense of what their motivations were and why they ran for Congress and how each person individually makes up this giant number that we see today or much larger than it was before. It’s still not even close to a third of the house or Congress though.

Elizabeth Herman: Right.

Kathryn Pearson: Right. No, that’s right. Women are can still comprise only 24% of the U.S. Congress. I’m curious now about these six days, I mean, that’s a lot of amazing photos in six days, and I would just be curious if any of the photographs in particular, the experiences stand out, whether because it was particularly hectic or funny or complicated, just any anecdotes you want to share.

Elizabeth Herman: Yeah, I mean, so prior to this project I had a lot of experience with portraiture, but not with political portraiture. So going into this, it was this idea that we were … Originally, the idea was to photograph all the new women and then we decided to include all the women. So was this task, and thankfully Celeste and I have partnered together and she has a lot of work. She had done a lot of political portraiture in the past. And so we sort of spoke about how we wanted to approach these portraits. We wanted to bring an era of sort of the way that political portraiture had been seen in the past, but really incorporate these historic nods. And the thing that I remember going into the first day, we photographed only four people on the first day, because we were really getting the setup all set.

And then the second day, right at the start of the second day, we photographed Speaker Pelosi, which was helpful in both encouraging other women to participate, but was hugely intimidating in terms of just like here was this project that we were trying to undertake and Speaker Pelosi was one of the first people we photographed. And I remember going into that moment and I had, had this idea that we would pose her like JFK, that we would use the, sorry, my son keeps on coming through my window, which is why my light is changing quite a bit. You’d think as a photographer I would have figured this out at events. But, and I remember going into that portrait shoot and talking to her about the vision, talking to her about the idea that she represented. She was the most powerful, she is the most powerful elected woman in history and how could we make her image kind of stand out?

And she was totally on board with the idea. She really loved the sort of concept of trying to emulate this historic image and that process of working with the most powerful woman in electoral politics in the United States, but having her just be, these images are images of people. They are truly just trying to represent who these women are and what their stories are in portrait form. And that was what really carried me through the rest of the project was these are images where we try to convey their power, but as Marisa said, their individuality, their own stories. And so trying to capture these sort of one-on-one interactions, we had five minutes maybe or 10 minutes maximum to do each of these portraits and having that sort of experience with Speaker Pelosi right at the start of this project really guided the rest of the portraits. So that was something that I really sort of carried throughout.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: Just to add some context to what was going on in those six days. It was huge that we got Speaker Pelosi right at the beginning because that motivated other women who maybe were skeptical about the project, or weren’t really sure how big it was going to be. Because up until pretty much the last day of shooting, we were still scheduling more people and trying to slot people in. And all of this is going on while there was a government shutdown happening in 2018. The first week that we photographed three days of that week was the vote to fund the government, which did not pass. So it was a bit hectic on Capitol Hill, all while this was happening. And then as representative Underwood mentioned, the next time that they came back to photograph the first week of January for another three days when the new Congress was being sworn in and the government was still shut down. So with just the massive feat of actually being able to wrangle all of these people to create this body of work was pretty amazing.

Kathryn Pearson: Oh, it’s extraordinary. I mean, it’s absolutely extraordinary. I think every woman, but except for one, that’s just incredible. How has your work been received and how have women in office been covered differently following redefining representation?

Elizabeth Herman: That’s a really interesting question. I think that one thing that I’ve thought about a lot in the course of the project and in speaking with some of the Congresswomen afterwards is just sort of like as Congresswoman Underwood said earlier, making sure that the actual representation of what Congress looks like right now is mirrored in the visuals that we see coming out of DC, it’s a huge deal. It affects who sees themselves as qualified, as electable, as someone that could run for office. It also affects how constituents can view their elected officials and who they see as someone that represents them. And I think that one thing that has been really wonderful in the past two years, and I know Marisa can speak to this further. There are a lot more women photographing politics right now, and there are women doing incredible work on politics in DC and across the country. And I think that when we look at images and we think about representation, it’s not just about who is in front of the camera, it’s about whose behind it.

Kathryn Pearson: Thank you.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: Yeah, it absolutely makes a huge difference. And I feel like one of the most inspiring things for me has been hearing the Congresswomen’s own reaction to their photos. A lot of them have said that they’ve never been photographed in this way. A lot of them have been very used to, they have their standard pose they do for every photo shoot and Biz and Celeste tried really hard to break them out of those poses and do things that felt more natural or that connected with the viewer a little bit more. And that’s really what shows their own personality. And I feel like hearing those things is very encouraging for me as somebody who assigns photographers to have work published in the New York Times, whether it’s for a big portrait shoot like this or for daily coverage on Capitol Hill, which we shoot every single day that they’re in session. It’s really fantastic to have people that the subjects, the Congresswoman actually can trust the photographers and they relate to them. And you really just get a much more diverse perspective in the images that you’re seeing every single day in politics.

Kathryn Pearson: And despite women’s gains, women are still dramatically under-represented, comprising less than a quarter of Congress. And so to what extent do you think the media’s portrayal of women in the past has contributed to women’s under-representation? And do you think that coverage like this is a way to help increase women’s representation?

Elizabeth Herman: I mean, I think that there’s … when I think about it, I think about it in both words and in images. I think when a lot of women announced that they were running for president in this most recent cycle, there was a lot of conversations about electability and likability and right away, there was a lot of pushback and a lot of really great sort of analysis on what do we mean when we say someone’s electable? And so as a photographer, I think about, the reason I think that our images and the way that we construe and construct sort of these tropes of power in our heads informs that. Part of the reason why we might say women are not electable is because when we close our eyes and do the Google image search in our brain of what a politician looks like, it’s a dude, it’s an old guy and that’s a guy that … So if we can change the image of what an elected official looks like, then we change what it means to be electable.

And it’s not about trying to influence how people like conceive of these things, it’s just trying to have it be more representative of what Congress actually looks like at this point. And what the future of power could look like.

Kathryn Pearson: We have a question from the audience, a comment, really wonderful photos. Did you have a makeup and hair person on hand or did they get themselves ready for the shoot? And then how are the women members using their photos?

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: One thing that they, a lot of the members were surprised to hear is that the New York Times still treats this as news photography. And we were not able to provide hair or makeup, which actually turned out really well because they all came in looking like themselves, or at least how they wanted to portray themselves. We weren’t trying to make them up or style them in a way that we thought would work for our photos. We wanted them to bring the self that they wanted to represent.

Elizabeth Herman: We did have one mirror propped up against the stair at some point and they would come in with different members of the staff and some of them would have makeup kits and they’d … And we got some emails about like would this be okay to wear? I know representative Deming’s from Florida, her staff emailed and was like, could she wear her motorcycle jacket? And we’re like, absolutely. That sounds great. But one thing that we did ask all members to do as representative Speier talked about was bring objects of significance, because in a lot of the historical portraits, you see them holding these objects like a book or a map or whatever it might be.

And so that was one way to actually really connect with them in the short period of time, was that we saw them, they would come in with these objects and tell these stories, and it’d be either family heirlooms or it’d be something representing their constituents, or it’d be something that they had, had in their office since they were first elected. And that was, in addition to their clothing choices and their makeup choices and the gestures that they adopted, that was another way to sort of convey their stories.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: Also for the second part of that question about how the photos are being used, a lot of the Congresswomen reached out and might have framed prints of the images or they’re using them for personal use, but they’re not able to use them for campaign imagery or anything like that. We still treat them as news photographs.

Kathryn Pearson: Got it, got it. I’m interested in the, on the print and online additions with 27 different covers one for each region of the country, could you talk a little bit more about that?

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: Yeah, that was one of the really brilliant things about working with the fantastic design team that we have at the Times. When we got everything together and it was kind of a scramble to get everything published online while this is still relevant to the new class, just a month after the idea was conceived. We got everything published online and we had to turn to print and we knew that we had a special section to produce, and we went back and forth on who should be on the cover. If it should be one person, should it be Speaker Pelosi, should it be a grid of people? Should it be all of them like a yearbook? And we really couldn’t decide what best represented the entire body while being fair to everybody and being representative. And one of our designers had the idea to feature one woman on each cover from all of our printing sites around the country. The New York Times has 27 different printing sites that we work with for local papers that are distributed out in those regions of the country.

So each cover has a Congresswoman that is local to that area, or as close as possible that we could get. And that was one of the really amazing things that I felt made people connect with the project. You would see people posting on social media pictures of their kid holding up the section with their local Congresswoman, and it really just made it feel more personal. And it also showed that this body of work and the movement with all these women being elected was about everybody involved. It wasn’t just the most powerful or the loudest or the most diverse, it was about everybody.

Kathryn Pearson: That’s great. What is your next collaboration?

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: It was kind of derailed by the pandemic.

Elizabeth Herman: But I think that in thinking about, I mean, one thing that Marisa and I love to talk about all the time is sort of like, how can we acknowledge the history of the way that women have been involved in politics in the past and bring them into the present. So as representative Speier had the image of Jeannette Rankin, who was the first woman ever elected to Congress, like thinking about what women’s political participation has been over the course of history and how that differs for white women and women of color and what that means in the future. I think that, that’s something that while might not be explicitly visual all the time is something that has a lot of visual components. So we continue to have ongoing text threads about how we can visualize these sort of like historical threads and bring them into the present.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: Yeah. And for me, it’s also entering this kind of work into our daily coverage. Oh, sorry, of the New York Times and making sure that we’re still representing these views in the stories that we do every single day, in all of the news that we produce. Yeah.

Kathryn Pearson: Is there anything that you would have done differently?

Elizabeth Herman: Oh yeah, of course.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: Planned it out further in advance.

Elizabeth Herman: I mean, yeah. I think that … I mean, I like look back on these images and I can’t emphasize enough. Like we set the pitch in right after Thanksgiving, it took like two, three weeks to get approved because it had to go through all the levels. And while we had done some planning in advance, you don’t want to like invest a ton of planning until you know if it’s going to happen. And then we got approval and then the government shut down and started to happen. So we had like three days to photograph that week. And then after the new year, we had three days to photograph before we knew that the section needed to close for it to be published in time, for it to still be relevant to the inauguration of the new Congress.

So things like hire a set designer or like be able to make sure that we had like a … We did this, it was me and Celeste and two assistants. And then like Marisa on email scheduling things, Beth trying to, the other editor trying to schedule. So it was very … I think we worked out the cost and we did it in an incredibly small amount of costs for having done so many portraits. So I think that like, if we knew that it would have become this, like if we knew the end result when we started, maybe like being able to bring in a bigger team, but there was something that was also quite lovely about having it be this very small women driven team that was doing this project. And like, I don’t think any of us slept very much during that period of time. And we all knew that we were working towards this common thing. So it made it worth it.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: There were also lots of little serendipitous moments that we came across with the Congresswomen stories. For example, Elizabeth Warren hadn’t announced that she was running for president at that point. And we kept talking to her team and trying to convince them to do the portrait shoot. And they were saying she wasn’t available. And then right about a week before we were done she announced that she was running for president. We were like, oh okay, maybe that’s why she didn’t have time for this. And we were finally able to get her. And then meanwhile, on another end of the spectrum, from representative Jaime Herrera Beutler from Washington State was also kind of doing the same thing, that she wasn’t really sure she wanted to do it and then right before we were done she announced that she was having her third child while in office, which is a huge milestone.

She’s the first woman to do that, I believe. And we were able to convince her that we really wanted to show the positive side of that and show how proud everyone was of her and that this is an amazing feat and actually play that up in the photo. So there were a lot of interesting stories we learned in doing it so quickly.

Kathryn Pearson: That is amazing. A question from the audience asks, was it difficult to get the project funded or to get the New York Times to embrace the idea?

Elizabeth Herman: I mean, Marisa you can talk to this better.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: That’s one of the things that I’m lucky with in my department is that all of my bosses are also women and it really did not take much convincing. Everyone was pretty onboard with it from the beginning. I had to go through some bureaucracy.

Elizabeth Herman: And from a freelancer’s perspective, you don’t know what the conversation’s going on at any given publication. So if I had pitched this project two years earlier, or three months later, it might not have worked. It was incredibly serendipitous that it was like this project, the right idea at the right time, like that I think is the sort of like X factor that you can never account for. And so for like any freelancers, you just have to … Like if you invest, if you put good research into a pitch and you craft it in a good way, whether or not it gets accepted or not, is that it’s almost beyond your control because you don’t know what the conversations are, but I just feel very fortunate to have gotten to work with such an incredible team, was a very special experience.

Kathryn Pearson: In preparing for this, did you find anything similar from years past, something documenting the women in Congress? There would have been fewer, but anything that was remotely similar to this? I don’t know of anything, but I’m wondering if you came across anything.

Elizabeth Herman: There were a couple other things that came out around the same time that photograph the new … So this was really Marisa and Beth’s foresight, was that when the pitch was new members to have the foresight to say, let’s do all of the women, because what ended up publishing right around the same time was photos of the new class and photos of the freshmen women. And those were both actually published I think right before we came out with the piece. And then we came out with this piece-

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: There was one before and one after.

Elizabeth Herman: Yeah. But so that’s the only thing I can think of really.

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: I didn’t really see at least not in my research. I didn’t come across anything from previous years of all the women in Congress or even just showing new classes of women. I feel like, I guess the last time that there was a wave of women would have been ’92 and I don’t remember any projects [crosstalk 00:53:29].

Elizabeth Herman: For photo history, if there are people who love archival photography, the library of Congress has some great archival photos of groups of the entirety of all the women serving in Congress, like in 1928, but they’re very small photos, obviously it’s like 10 women. So if you’re interested in that go to the library of Congress, there’s a lot of great imagery there, but it’s just like a group photo on Capitol steps.

Kathryn Pearson: Right. There are 10 women in 1972. I mean, it’s yeah, this is a remarkable increase. So given the timing of everything going on, was there a common thread of topics that the women were sort of talking about as they were getting their photo shoot, whether it was leadership elections or the shutdown or the new Congress or office space? I mean, did you sort of feel like you were in the zeitgeists of what was going on at the time?
Elizabeth Herman:
I mean, to some extent, I think the women, a lot of the new women had campaigned together, they had gotten to know each other through the process of campaigning. And I think that for them a lot of the conversations were about, they were, a lot of them were entirely new to political office. And so trying to figure out and navigate this new career as representative Underwood had said, that was something that a lot of the new members were talking about. And literally when we photographed them, it was the day they moved into their offices. And so it was seeing them trying to navigate this very literal new space in this new reality that they were stepping into. So a lot of them, like as representative Underwood said, I photographed her and then I photographed Ayanna Pressley right afterwards.

Elizabeth Herman: And both of them were doing like four interviews back to back. And it was just this entire, like new way of thinking through like what their life was going to look like. We got to see that transition happen in real time. I think that for the established members, it was this sense of like they, when we photograph the established members before the inauguration of the new class, Speaker Pelosi hadn’t been voted in as speaker yet, for the second time. And so they were sort of anticipating a woman taking the speakership again and what that would mean. So I think the women’s role in Congress as a body was sort of the thing that people were talking about that, but the government shut down was also on people’s minds, which seems like such old news at this point.

Kathryn Pearson: Right, but it’s a huge deal in the moment, of course.

Elizabeth Herman: Yes.

Kathryn Pearson: Someone from the audience writes, maybe you should consider photographing all living retired female members of Congress.

Elizabeth Herman: That would be … sure. Yes. I think that’s a thing that we’ve talked about is that this is something that this sort of evolution of power and how it is represented, is something that we hope that this is not like the definitive closing, it’s going to continue to evolve. And so I think there’s a lot of really great work being done on thinking through how we think about power beyond political power and how we visualize that by a lot of photographers who are doing sort of work across the country and dealing with these issues in the way that we’ve conceived of power in the U.S. throughout the course of our history.

Kathryn Pearson: Great. What haven’t I asked you Marisa and Biz that you want to talk about in terms of sharing your experiences in your work with us?

Marisa Schwartz Taylor: I’m trying to think of something, yeah. I mean, it was just such an amazing experience. And as Biz said, it’s going to continue evolving. And what we’re really interested in is just seeing how representation changes in America and then also how we can contribute to what the visual subconscious of that looks like. I mean, I think it was really important for us to put these women individual spaces of power that they hadn’t been in before. And now maybe somebody when they close their eyes, will be able to picture this. And these were literally putting them in those places that when you see that, you look at it and you’re like, wow, I’ve never seen a picture like that with this person there before. And I felt like it was really empowering for the viewers and also for the Congresswomen who were photographed.

Kathryn Pearson: Yeah.

Elizabeth Herman: I think that, that is sort of the main thesis so to speak in some ways, is like something that is inherent to photography and to editing is it’s a series of decisions. Everything is intentional. You’re choosing what to include and exclude within the frame and you’re choosing what images are seen and not seen. And I think that part of what this project was sort of trying to speak to was that, okay, you’re seeing these images and thinking through seeing these images is not just about, oh, I’m seeing these images for the first time. It’s like, why have I not seen these images before? And what other images have I not seen? And what other sort of conceptions and ways of thinking about things are missing from my imagination and from the national imagination. And so the goal of the hope was that this project isn’t just about providing this sort of historical document or this body of images, it’s about sort of helping people push beyond the bounds of the way that their minds conceived of power and representation in the past.

And you don’t have to wait for other people to present images of how power looks, you can question that in your own head and in your own conceptions and put your own imagery out into the world through all the ways in which you can get your images to the world now.

Kathryn Pearson: A question asks, is this photo collection online? And yes, at the New York Times, and have they been hung in the women’s history museum in DC?

Elizabeth Herman: They have not.

Kathryn Pearson: I like that idea

Elizabeth Herman: I mean, I think that one thing that, it’s a book just to do a plug for the book, which is available everywhere books are sold. But the other thing is that just sort of thinking, one thing that we’ve sort of dreamed of is trying to figure out ways to actually have these images be displayed in the way that the sort of old historical portraits that they reference are displayed. So we’re still thinking through how that might happen.

Kathryn Pearson: That’s great. Well, Marisa, Biz, I want to thank you both so much and of course, Congresswomen Underwood and Speier who were with us earlier, this has been an awesome discussion and really just thank you so much for the gift of your book. This will continue to influence people for generations to come that haven’t even seen it yet. So it really has expanded the way we think about women’s leadership and women in power and it has been a delight to talk to you both about it. So thank you very, very much.