Rep. Chrissy Houlahan remembers the first time she gave a briefing to a general. She was a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, a Stanford graduate who had attended the school on an ROTC scholarship, the daughter and granddaughter of Navy pilots. Her life revolved around service.
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“My colonel introduced me [to the general] with a blonde joke. And I thought, ‘Hmm, that’s not exactly the way I wanted to start this briefing,’” Houlahan said in an interview for POLITICO’s Women Rule podcast. “I really would have liked to have had the opportunity to just be a lieutenant.”
America’s armed forces have historically been a male-dominated environment. In turn, that means that when military veterans are elected to Congress, they’re generally men.
But that’s beginning to change.
Last November, Chrissy Houlahan was elected to the U.S. House. Even as the number of veterans in Congress is near historic lows for the post-World War II era, the number of women veterans serving in the House of Representatives is at a historic high: four.
The Pennsylvania Democrat knows that might not sound like much — it isn’t. But it’s double the number of women veterans who were in the House just one year ago, and enough that Houlahan and the other three vets — Democratic Reps. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Elaine Luria of Virginia — have officially launched the House Servicewomen and Women Veterans Congressional Caucus.
“There had never been a caucus that was focused exclusively on women who serve,” said Houlahan, despite the fact that roughly one in six active service members are women.
The goal of the caucus is to raise awareness and ensure that the needs of military women are being addressed, according to Houlahan.
“As they’re recruited, you know, what are their particular needs as they come on board active duty, as they go and maybe transition into Reserves status, as they go into their veterans’ part of their career?” she said. “Those are all parts of the arc of a woman who serves.”
Houlahan has firsthand experience with some of the hurdles faced by women in uniform.
“I had my first child when I was active-duty, and the base had a six-month waiting list for childcare, and I had six weeks of leave,” Houlahan recalled. “That was one of the things that precipitated my leaving the military, was that I couldn’t afford childcare outside.”
“The expectation of a traditional military family,” she said, “would be the man would be active-duty, and the woman would be the trailing spouse, and the woman would be responsible for childcare and for transitioning the family from place to place.”
As is happening throughout society, those ideas are changing and old types of behavior are no longer acceptable.
Yet even as progress advances, Houlahan says she sees major barriers that stand in the way of veterans’ winning seats in Congress — especially for women veterans like her.
“It’s hard to be a veteran and to think of yourself in this seat,” she said. “The attack that, naturally, will come at a veteran, is, ‘Well, you don’t live here. You haven’t lived here in a while.’ And that’s really unfortunate. The other reason why I think you see fewer veterans than you should is that, of course, we don’t have enormous networks of people who have resources. … When you’re an early-stage candidate, access to capital is part of the way that you can communicate your message. And we just don’t have the networks that everybody has.”
“I don’t think it’s just women veterans” who have the problem, Houlahan said. ”I think it’s kind of all of us.”
To hear more from Chrissy Houlahan — including how to follow your interests, whether they take you from the military to a sporting-goods company to Teach for America — listen to the full podcast here. Women Rule takes listeners backstage with female bosses for real talk on how they made it and what advice they have for women looking to lead.