Meet Rosa DeLauro, the ‘Hipster’ Congresswoman With a Feminist Agenda

Photo: Getty Images, Corbis, Corbis

Rosa DeLauro has been representing Connecticut’s third district in the U.S. House of Representatives for over two decades. Recently, she’s come to represent two somewhat more nebulous constituencies: hipsters and women who want to “have it all.” The 70-year-old congresswoman’s cropped hair and funky accessories have earned her a NSFW hipster-appreciation Tumblr, and while she claims to have no idea what a hipster is (she says her favorite band is Peter, Paul and Mary, and we’re inclined to believe her), she’s eager to discuss women’s economic wellbeing.

Today, Representative DeLauro and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi kicked off their new women’s economic agenda (“When Women Succeed, America Succeeds: An Economic Agenda for Women and Families”), a kind of legislative response to the work-life balance questions that have obsessed pundits over the past year. The campaign will raise awareness about laws that would hold employers accountable for the pressures facing working women, especially the nonelites who don’t have a Lean In circle. In the wake of the War on Women, the congresswomen hope to “rebrand” evergreen labor issues such as paycheck fairness, the minimum wage, paid sick leave, and affordable child care, showing that their opponents are anti-feminist.

The Cut chatted with DeLauro about her agenda and her style as she rode the train from Connecticut to D.C. earlier this week.

Why did you decide to make the minimum wage and paid sick leave “women’s issues”?
For several years, I’ve been working on the financial pressures facing women, and also the subcategory of women who are single, divorced, widowed, or separated. Unmarried women are the most economically insecure group in the country and there has been so little attention and focus on the economic issues they face.

The long and the short of it is that it made sense to look at these economic issues as a package, an agenda, a focus, and not split them off from one another because they’re all interconnected and they form the underpinning of what’s happening to women and their families. It’s about enabling women to achieve greater economic security for themselves and for their families.

You’ve introduced several paycheck-fairness and sick-leave bills over the years. Is there more interest in these issues now than when you started?
There is! More and more this is coming to the fore. It’s much more heightened. The recession has demonstrated this.

I’ve talked about pay equity for so many years, and political pundits on TV and even some of my colleagues across the aisle have dismissed the idea, said it doesn’t exist, that women elect to take jobs that don’t pay, which is really nonsense. It does exist. It doesn’t make any difference what your education, your background, or your credentials are. Women make 77 cents on the dollar, whether you’re a waitress, a bus driver, an engineer, a news anchor, a college professor, etc. There is an unbelievable need — and the data and the statistics all back this up — to address the economic pressures facing women today. Especially as we find that women today are a primary or a co-breadwinner. This is real. There is a new dynamic. We’re not talking about a nuclear family. That may have been more the ideal than the norm, but nevertheless, this is about how you let working parents support their kids.

During your first term in 1991, you were one of 33 women in Congress. Now there are 102. Do you get more traction with feminist issues like pay equity as women’s representation improves?
No. That one’s been a division based on party, not gender. I’ll give you an example. We’ve passed paycheck fairness twice in the House. In the first go-around we had fourteen Republicans who joined us in this effort, only six of them now remain. On the legislation, at the moment, every single member of the Democratic caucus is signed on and we don’t have a Republican on. So whether they’re men or women, they’ve decided not to sign on. The other piece that’s interesting to note is when this bill first went to the Senate we lost by two votes. There were five women members of the Senate, including the two senators from Maine, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, who voted against it. Whenever we have a debate on the issue in the House, the leadership of the Republican Party always puts up women to counter our efforts.

Another big factor in women’s economic lives is their ability to control when and how and with whom they have children. That’s under all sorts of new threats, with shrinking term limits for abortion and family-planning-clinic regulations. I know it’s mostly going on in state legislatures, but I’m curious what you make of it. 
It’s more than troubling. We have to be on our guard. It really is an assault on women’s privacy across the country. The focus on these issues comes at a time when we ought to be looking at how we create jobs and economic growth.

It’s important to look at how the debate has shifted. We’ve regressed to the point of debating whether people should have access to contraception. That was never an issue, but you saw with the Affordable Care Act the assault on women in that regard. In 2009, I introduced legislation with Representative Tim Ryan that was called the Reducing the Need for Abortion Act. The goal was to move the debate beyond the legality of abortion. Here we are, five years later, asking if women should have access to contraception. It really is extremism.

What do you think accounts for increasingly extreme views on abortion?
I’m not in the heads of those people. I think it reflects where they are with their view of what place women should have in our society. They want to relegate women to traditional roles where they haven’t had a voice and aren’t participating in political life or professional life. I think that reflects a basic lack of respect for women and lack of trust in the decisions women make on behalf of their families.

Politics blogs have called you out for not adhering to the skirt-suit uniform. Have you always stood out on Capitol Hill?
I don’t know if I stood out. My mom was a dressmaker, who worked in the old sweatshops in New Haven. She made all of my clothes and was someone who has unbelievable taste in clothing. I take a lot of what I’ve learned from her. I’ve always dressed the way I liked to, in clothes that suit me and that are interesting and colorful, whether it was in high school or in college or in the working world. I’ve never shied away from it. I suppose it’s an expression of some sort, of who I am, that is reflected in my dress. But it’s not defining. It’s not who you are or what you’re about. That’s about what you accomplish and what you do.

Do you hate that question?
Let me say this: I don’t spend a lot of time focused on it. Someone asked me about a pair of boots. I said, Look, I love boots. I buy them. It’s no more than that.

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Meet ‘Hipster’ Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro