Youngest woman in Congress

Ms Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, was bar-tending and waitressing before her historic election victory.
Ms Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, was bar-tending and waitressing before her historic election victory.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The 116th Congress has made history with the number of women of Native American, African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American roots sworn into office. The Sunday Times takes a look at the most prominent 'glass ceiling shatterers'.

It was not so long ago that the youngest Congresswoman in US history felt her life was over.

Ms Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez found herself bar-tending and waitressing at the age of 28, scrubbing tables after restaurant shifts and falling asleep on the subway ride home.

"I once got pick-pocketed, and everything I earned that day was stolen. That day, I locked myself in a room and cried deep... I honestly thought as a 28-year-old waitress I was too late; that the train of my fulfilled potential had left the station," she said on Instagram.

Bronx-born and of Puerto Rican descent, the international relations and economics degree holder grew up watching her mother mop floors, drive school buses and answer phones to make ends meet, especially after her father died.

She brought the same work ethic to her race for a Congress seat, working on her campaign in the morning before waitressing and knocking on doors with volunteers in a grassroots campaign, unseating a long-time Democrat incumbent in a stunning turn of events at the primaries.

A self-professed socialist, her political beliefs fall towards the left, even within the Democratic Party, and she is known for speaking out on issues of socio-economic inequality.

Ms Ocasio-Cortez, 29, has used her Twitter and Instagram accounts to highlight to her millions of followers privileges and practices other more traditional politicians would gloss over.

 
 
 
 
 

She was open about her financial struggles and not being able to afford rent in Washington DC before her official start date and new salary as a Congress member, pointing out that it was one of many barriers to politics faced by the working class.

She lamented how her insurance payments as a waitress were more than twice what she will pay as a member of Congress, using her Twitter account - where she has 1.38 million followers - to call for Medicare for all.

Predictably, she has been a lightning rod for right-wing criticism. Some of it has focused on attempting to debunk her origin story, with a reporter once posting a photo of her and adding, "that jacket and coat don't look like a girl who struggles".

But the media-savvy political star has been adept at turning around such attacks with incisive criticism, animated images and popular lyrics, and humour of her own.

Commentators have noted her ability to start national conversations, such as on her proposal to tax the rich by 70 per cent.

And in response to a tweet that said she was awe-inspiring, Ms Ocasio-Cortez wrote a note of encouragement: "Last year I was bar-tending, and I bought my first couch two weeks ago - shortly after I got health insurance. So don't worry, growth doesn't happen in a straight line."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 13, 2019, with the headline 'Youngest woman in Congress'. Print Edition | Subscribe