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. Take Elizabeth Holtzman: In 1972, the then-31-year-old stunned the whole of Washington when she upset a powerful 50-year male incumbent in the Democratic primary, becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. (Sound familiar?)
And, of course, you can’t talk about women in politics without talking about Shirley Chisholm, a once-in-a-generation force for change who represented her Brooklyn district from 1969 to 1983. As she put it, “My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn’t always discuss for reasons of political expediency.” Despite her fearlessness — or, more aptly, because of it — opponents dismissed her, she said, as just a “little schoolteacher.” (She had been an educator before taking office.)
There is a counterintuitive advantage in being the underdog, though, and New York women have a long record of turning their challenging positioning into a superpower.
That takes a balancing act: Be attractive, but not too attractive. Smile, but be taken seriously. Get things done, but never appear threatening. And those expectations are compounded for women of color.
Just think about the kinds of photo-ops women in public life are asked to pose for — baking pies, tending a garden, etc. — and the way they subvert them to hit back at the male power structure. Look closely at the above photo of Geraldine Ferraro (who served in the House from 1979 to 1985) and you’ll see the words “Clean up politics. Elect women.” emblazoned on her apron. Or Representative Susan Molinari gamely standing tall on a booster next to Chuck Schumer during a television taping. These photos have a kind of cheeky strength. But looking at them, I can only wonder what private costs these women faced as they made space for the rest of us to follow in the public sphere.
One thing that is clear: These New York women never let narrow notions of what a leader should look like stop them from getting things done.
And get things done, they did. In 1972, Ms. Chisholm was the first woman of any color and the first African-American to make a serious run for president on a major-party ticket. She also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with Ms. Abzug and a host of others. And Ms. Holtzman sat on the House Judiciary Committee as it presided over the Watergate investigation in 1974. In 1984, Ms. Ferraro was the first female vice-presidential candidate and sponsored the Economic Equity Act in 1981, a bill that helped strengthen the financial rights of widows and divorcées, and permitted homemakers to save with individual retirement accounts.
In both image and impact, these women are gritty, determined. But the photos that strike me most are the ones in which tenderness and honest vulnerability are on display. You see it in Ms. Chisholm’s unvarnished joy as she waves from a car window while campaigning, in Ms. Holtzman’s satisfied and knowing smile, and in the warmth with which Nydia Velázquez, the first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress, embraces her father.
These images are also a powerful reminder: Thriving in a world created for men doesn’t have to mean shying away from all that makes you a woman. When criticized for talking about her signature red lipstick, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez put it this way: “I derive power from my femininity. And any attempt to make femininity trivial or unimportant is an attempt to take away my power.” In the face of a white and male majority ready to cast anything feminine as frivolous, this small act is itself a kind of defiant rebellion.
Is it any wonder New York produces the kind of women who are defined by their nerve? As a native New Yorker and the product of New York City public schools, I know that this city forces you to face each day with bravery — or you’ll never make it onto a crowded subway car intact.
What’s more, each new generation of New York women inherits the legacy of those who came before. Our streets are stamped with the heel prints of women who were never expected to succeed but did anyway. Just look at the unlikely stories of Ms. Chisholm, Ms. Holtzman, Ms. Velázquez and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. Just look at the women that charge by you on any given city block, who strenuously hoist strollers up subway staircases, and who give you a piece of their mind whether you like it or not. Just look at the girls gathering in tight circles on a city playground, sharing secrets — and building their plans for world domination.
Audrey Gelman is the chief executive officer and co-founder of The Wing, a network of work and community spaces designed for women with locations in New York City, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles. Ms. Gelman previously served as deputy communications director for Comptroller Scott Stringer’s campaign and is a native New Yorker.