'My Very Existence Is Disruptive': Rep. Ayanna Pressley on Breaking the Mold in Congress
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 28: Representative Ayanna Pressley speaks as student loan borrowers and advocates gather for the People’s Rally To Cancel Student Debt
[Editor’s Note: Don’t miss Part One of our series with Representative Cori Bush.]
In our three-part women’s history month series, The Root sat down with the next generation of Black congresswomen shaking things up on Capitol Hill. You’ll hear from Representatives Cori Bush, Ayanna Pressley, and Summer Lee . Each of them will break down how it feels to be the first Black woman to represent their state in Congress, their path to the Hill, and their plans to reimagine the role of politics.
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The Story Behind Ayanna Pressley’s Superpower
Less than a year had passed since Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley placed her hand on the Bible and pledged to deliver for the people of Massachusetts. But the significance of the vote ahead of her weighed just as heavily on the more junior Congresswoman as it did her elder peers.
For the first time in two decades, the United States Congress was voting on whether to impeach a President. It was the kind of moment that makes the history books, and it wasn’t the time to draw the focus. “Today, we send a clear message. We will not tolerate abuse of power from the President of the United States… I will vote to impeach Donald J. Trump, and I urge my colleagues to do the same,” Pressley proclaimed from the House floor.
Her speech was less than two minutes, but it may as well have been a lifetime. Upon leaving the chamber, Pressley, 49, ducked into an unoccupied bathroom stall. Tears slid down her cheeks as she contemplated the last several weeks of her life, a lovely dark wig strapped to her head as an ominous reminder.
In the last 24 hours, Pressley had lost all of her hair. It had been a painfully quick process with little time for mourning. Five weeks earlier, she sat in her stylist’s chair as the woman pulled her naturally curly shoulder-length hair into Senegalese twists. It was then that she discovered her first bald spot. By the time of the impeachment, her last strands of hair were gone.
Curled up in the congressional bathroom, Pressley made a decision. “I knew at that moment that my journey was not going to include a wig,” she tells The Root.
She hadn’t wanted people to think she was trying to make a statement at the impeachment trial by appearing without her wig. But hiding wasn’t a permanent solution.
“I’ve worn every hairstyle I’ve worn, ponytails, Rihanna wigs, you know, braids, weaves, I’ve done it all. But that was by choice,” says Pressley. “This felt like something that was being put on me. And as a woman, as a black woman, I feel like there’s so much that we already take on that we put on in order to be digestible to the world… I didn’t want to put on one more piece of armor.”
In a January 2020 interview with The Root, Pressley revealed to the world that she had Alopecia. The autoimmune condition causes hair loss and affects nearly seven million people in the United States.
“Alopecia is my superpower. It’s forced me to summon straight from a very deep place in the face of discrimination and judgment, and online bullying and vitriol,” says Pressley, echoing her 2020 interview. “Because I believe I’m not here... to just take up space, I’m here to create it. And that is the true power of representation.”
“My very existence is disruptive of the status quo and indicative of progress.”
There’s a reason this is the story Pressley chooses to tell when we ask her about being a Black woman in Congress. She’s not running from the things that make her stand out, whether that’s her baldness or her Blackness. Having to talk about living with Alopecia just made her confront those differences head-on.
“My very existence is disruptive of the status quo and indicative of progress,” says Pressley. “Every single thing, how I show up, how I take up space.”
Breaking the mold is kind of her thing. Pressley rose to prominence in 2009, becoming the first Black woman and first woman of color to serve on the Boston city council. As a council member, Presley formed the Committee on Healthy Women, Families, and Communities—which focused on issues disproportionately impacting women and girls. In 2015, she won the Emily’s List Rising Star award. And in 2018, she won her race for Massachusetts 7th district, which includes most of Boston and its surrounding suburbs.
In winning, Pressley became the first Black woman and the first woman of color elected to Congress in Massachusetts. “We broke a 230-year-old ceiling,” says Pressley proudly.
The responsibility of her position isn’t lost on Pressley, nor is what she represents for her constituents. “I know what it is to feel invisible and I know what is to be surveilled, scrutinized, and profiled by police,” says Pressley. “I know what it is to feel like your government doesn’t see you or reflect or represent you. So those are all things I’m bringing to this awesome responsibility.”
A Lesson in Cooperative Governing From Ayanna Pressley
It doesn’t take long for Pressley to dive into her policy priorities when you speak with her. “I make no apologies,” says Pressley. “Public policy is my love language.”
Ask her about abortion, the CROWN Act, or student debt, and she can give you an eloquent answer about the connections between these issues and broader racial and gender justice issues. But perhaps what she’s even more passionate about is why she focuses on these issues.
See, Pressley practices “cooperative governing”—a model of governing that recognizes constituents as equal participants in legislating. In essence, Pressley says she strives to treat the people who voted for her, especially the most marginalized among that group, as partners.
That’s why in 2019, after her official swearing-in ceremony, Pressley returned to Boston for a “ceremonial” swearing-in. As she placed her hand on the bible once more before a crowd of 600-plus people at Roxbury Community College in Boston, Mass., she wanted to prove that she was different.
“I wanted to make the point that, ‘Okay, you’ve humbled me. You’ve entrusted me. We’re going to be partners in this,” she says.
She says that listening to her constituents has helped guide her on the most significant issues of our time—like student debt. “This is a nearly $2 trillion crisis impacting people from every walk of life, especially black borrowers borrowing at higher rates, defaulting at higher rates,” says Pressley. “We harnessed the movement and were able to tell the true story about the face of student debt.”
How Does Ayanna Pressley View Legacy?
Pressley certainly isn’t without her detractors, but life under a microscope hasn’t changed her politics. “I think I’ve only become more emboldened,” says Pressley. “My conviction doesn’t change; that remains the same.”
It’s only been four years since she entered office, but Pressley already has a pretty good idea of what she’d like to leave behind.
“I hope my legacy will be that more people felt emboldened to dare to simply be themselves fully, authentically, unapologetically,” says Pressley, “and that they felt the impact of intersectional transformative policies that I championed.”
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