Shirley Chisholm campaigning for Congress at a Brooklyn housing project, October 26, 1968.
Leonard Bazerman/Associated Press
antecedent / power

New York City Women in the House (of Representatives)

A look at 90 years of strong congresswomen.
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If you’ve seen media coverage of the 29-year-old first-year representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it would be easy to think that she’s the first of her kind. Democrats and Republicans alike appear to be in a perpetual state of slack-jawed bewilderment as they watch her stand up to powerful lobbyists, stomp on shibboleths and clap back at her trolls on Twitter.

But Ms. Ocasio-Cortez would be the first to tell you that she hails from a long line of defiant, outspoken congresswomen from New York. (And, of course, they aren’t just New Yorkers; Lori Lightfoot is preparing to be the first African-American woman and first openly gay person to serve as Chicago’s mayor, running largely as an outsider candidate.) As the saying goes, history never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.

The story is in the photos from The New York Times archive. Beginning with Ruth Baker Pratt, who won her house seat in 1929, a series of New York women would fight their way onto Capitol Hill, defying expectations and breaking down barriers. Next came Edna Kelly, Brooklyn’s first congresswoman, who, among other things, helped establish the principle of equal pay for equal work.
 
The 1970s ushered in a golden age of congresswomen from New York. There was the inimitable Bella Abzug, the lawyer and civil rights activist who served three loud, proud terms from 1971 to 1977 for New York’s 19th District. “I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine,” she once wrote, “and knock the crap out of the political power structure.” One can only wonder what she would have done with Instagram Live and 280-character tweets.

Gov. Mario Cuomo said of Ms. Abzug in 1998, “She was a New Yorker, and for a New Yorker, any day without a really good fight is regarded as a lost opportunity.” He was right: Whether navigating the A train or pushing through rush hour traffic in Midtown, you can’t make it in New York without learning to throw a few elbows. The same goes for stepping into a national political arena dominated and designed by men.

Time and again, women candidates have been met with derision or dismissed as “long shots” — in many cases, both.
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