Stronger together, Pa.’s ‘Fab Four’ women lawmakers make their mark on Capitol Hill

Pa's 'Fab Four' (l-r) U.S. Reps. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th District; Susan Wild, D-7th District; Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District; and Madeleine Dean, D-4th District on the House floor. (Rep. Dean/Facebook)

WASHINGTON — Last fall, four women from Pennsylvania won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, breaking up the state’s all-male congressional delegation and making history in the process.

The women, all Democrats, supported each other along the way, holding joint fundraisers, meeting up for margaritas, and consulting each other about how to manage joint media appearances — discussing everything from what to say to what to wear.

They’re called the “Fab Four.”

Now, two months into the first session of the 116th Congress, their bonds have intensified. “We’re all very different, but we do share the idea that we will go farther and succeed legislatively even better as we help one another,” said U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, of the Montgomery County-based 4th Congressional District.

Collaboration looks a little different on the U.S. Capitol grounds than it did on the Pennsylvania campaign trail. “We do not march in lock step by any means,” said Rep. Susan Wild, of the Lehigh Valley-based 7th District.“But we bounce ideas off each other and talk about issues. … If we’re proposing a bill, the first people we check in with are [each other].”

Wild, Dean, and U.S. Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon and Chrissy Houlahan are the first women to represent the Keystone State in Congress since 2015, when ex-Rep. Allyson Schwartz retired.

Their backgrounds are diverse: Wild was the first female solicitor of Allentown; Dean was a state representative; Scanlon, D-5th District, was a civil rights attorney; Houlahan, D-6th District, is a veteran and former science teacher.

Six other women have served in the state’s congressional delegation, three of whom were elected without first succeeding husbands who died in office. No more than two women had previously represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. House at the same time.

Until last year’s “pink wave,” Pennsylvania was the largest state with an all-male congressional delegation. The state ranked 49th in women’s political representation overall, across multiple levels of government, according to RepresentWomen, an organization working to advance gender parity in politics.

‘A different perspective’

Today, women hold four of the state’s 18 House seats — or just over 20 percent — a change that helps boost the state’s ranking to 40th.

Though the state still earns a “D” overall, going from “zero to four” has powerful symbolic implications, according to Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics in New Jersey. “When girls see women in office, they are able to see themselves in those roles,” she said.

That was the case for Dean’s granddaughter, who ran up and said hello to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at Dean’s swearing-in ceremony on the House floor. “I just love that, in her mind … there’s no barrier for women,” Dean said.

Women’s political representation has substantive implications as well. Women “bring a different perspective and different life experiences” to the policymaking table, Dittmar said. “The women in Pennsylvania are part of that.”

Indeed, the Fab Four are working together to amplify their voices. Gun safety is an early priority. After joining a gun violence prevention task force, the women announced their membership together. It was a deliberate move “to signal that’s something we’re committed to working on jointly,” Scanlon said.

When Dean introduced legislation that would ban possession of firearms that can’t be detected by metal detectors, such as those created by 3D printers, Houlahan and Scanlon quickly signed on as co-sponsors.

The women have shown their support on other issues, too.

They co-sponsored Wild’s bill to pay the Coast Guard during the government shutdown, for example. Dean said the women also supported her run for vice chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, and Scanlon enjoyed the support of Dean, a fellow member of the House Judiciary Committee, in her run for vice chair (both of which were successful).

“There’s a lot we want to work on,” Scanlon said, ticking off issues ranging from student debt to health care to climate change. Even their staffs are getting to know each other well, Wild said.

Though busy, the women still find time to get together socially — over dinner and drinks, at pizza parties with other women in Congress, and often on the House floor. Another round of margaritas is also on the to-do list, Dean said.

Breaking into a ‘boys club’

Despite the Fab Four’s historic victories, the state has a long way to go before women achieve parity in Pennsylvania politics. Women hold only a quarter of the state’s legislative seats and no statewide offices. Pennsylvania has never elected a woman to the U.S. Senate, and women of color and Republican women are especially underrepresented.

Systemic barriers are to blame, said Cynthia Terrell, executive director of RepresentWomen. “Pennsylvania is a very old-school state, where local politics has been dominated by men,” she said.

Dittmar echoed the sentiment, calling Pennsylvania politics a “boys club” where male-dominated political networks have recruited male candidates and supported them in their campaigns. District maps drawn by Republicans, meanwhile, have made it “awfully hard” for women to win office because they are more likely to run as Democrats, Terrell said.

When women do run, they tend to be older, which limits their political trajectories, added Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Pittsburgh’s Chatham University. Women also have less access to moneyed networks, which means they spend less time knocking on doors and more time raising funds, which can impact election outcomes, she said.

That’s slowly changing in Pennsylvania, with female-targeted political action committees like the Philadelphia-based Represent and Pittsburgh’s Women for the Future sinking thousands of dollars into state races.

Demographics have also played a role, said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. Some of Pennsylvania’s ethnic populations hail from male-dominant cultures in southern and eastern Europe, he said, while Terrell noted that the state’s sizable Catholic population tends to back candidates who oppose abortion access.

Nevertheless, Congress watchers are optimistic about progress.

Last year, the state Supreme Court threw out the GOP’s redistricting map, which opened up more opportunities for Democrats, including the Fab Four.

The dynamics of the 2018 election, and conversations around sexual misconduct in particular, generated enthusiasm for diversity in politics, Dittmar said, which contributed to record numbers of women winning federal office last fall.

Political groups and politicians are working to build on the 2018 “Year of the Woman.” Ready to Run and Emerge America, for example, are recruiting and training women to run for office in Pennsylvania and around the country — a goal actively supported by the Fab Four.

Progress, said Houlahan, who will deliver the keynote address at a Ready to Run training event in Pennsylvania this weekend, “has to be permanent. Until we’re at 50 percent and sustainable, it’s not parity.”

Allison Stevens is a Washington-based correspondent for The Newsroom.

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