5 Asian American Women In Congress On The Advice They Could've Used As Freshmen

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News; Emma McIntyre/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

There are 17 Asian American and Pacific Islander lawmakers serving in Congress today, according to Pew Research Center numbers. It's a record high, although the increase in representation has been squarely concentrated in the House, according to Pew. These lawmakers are both defying the idea of what someone who holds political power looks like, and introducing new priorities in Congress.

But being a woman of color in her first year in Congress means coming up against obstacles that a group of predominantly white and male lawmakers has never had to contend with, or even consider. Though freshmen members are each navigating the halls of power their own way, some of their colleagues have years of insight to offer.

From Sen. Kamala Harris recalling her mother's advice about being the "first," to several congresswomen reflecting on the importance of mentorship, these lawmakers shared some of the most valuable advice that helped them steer through the old boys' club on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA)

Mike Coppola/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

"I knew I was coming into a fairly white male body [of representatives]," Jayapal says about her first year in Congress. "I must have known that it was going to be challenging, because I did pay attention to the different tactics that were told to me about what to do when somebody insults you on the floor, for example."

She tells Bustle that although she quickly learned to handle some of the challenges she faced on the job, she would’ve advised her freshman self to be prepared for discrimination she’d face in the beginning.

But her broader advice for freshmen members, she says, is "don't back down, don’t let anybody intimidate you, don't let them say, 'This is the way it’s always been done.' Just because something’s always been done that way doesn’t mean it should be again."

Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY)

Shutterstock

Meng says the one thing she learned was to more actively seek out the mentorship of those who had come before her in her first year in Congress.

"Whether that’s seeking out advice from others or trying to talk to more people who used to work on the Hill, I think that would’ve benefited me more," she tells Bustle. "So as I’m now in my fourth term, I’m trying to be better at that in relation to the newer and younger members that have come onto the Hill."

Meng points to her struggle in balancing her work with her family.

"Because I have young kids and a lot of people don't have young kids in Congress, I was sort of plowing ahead, 'I can do this, I can do this,'" she says. "But the few times I was able to talk to fellow mom members ... they were able to give me good advice and just sort of be an outlet, emotionally."

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)

Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Duckworth, who became the first sitting senator to give birth while in office, says her advice to herself as a more junior lawmaker would be to "give yourself permission to struggle and be frustrated as you take on your new responsibilities. There is no perfect work-life balance, and you’re not going to be able to do everything you’d like to." She adds that "what matters is that you never give up working to make a difference in people’s lives."

Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA)

Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Chu tells Bustle there were lessons she learned throughout her political career that proved useful in Congress. When she ran for California State Assembly years ago, she felt she came up against a political establishment that preferred a male candidate instead. But with support from then-Rep. Hilda Solis, Chu says she was able to turn things around and win her election.

"It was because [Solis] herself had gone against the old boys network when she ran for Congress. She never forgot what it’s like," Chu says. "So what I tell people is it’s so important to get a mentor, and to find people who can support you and guide you along the way."

The California congresswoman also stresses the importance of building coalitions with those who might not be your most obvious allies. Her experience, she says, taught her that "there are no permanent friends and there are no permanent enemies."

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)

Ethan Miller/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The California senator and 2020 candidate tells Bustle she draws inspiration from her mom, who moved to the United States from India and became one of the first women of color to work as a scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

“She had two goals in her life: to raise her two daughters and end breast cancer. She broke down all kinds of barriers and her everlasting spirit still pushes me to fight for what I believe in," Harris says. "Her lasting words continue to resonate with me to this day: ‘You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.’”