Breaking a 'cement' ceiling: Summer Lee's journey to becoming Pa.'s first Black congresswoman

Julia Terruso, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Political News

PHILADELPHIA — Summer Lee’s swearing-in wasn’t the celebratory moment her family envisioned. Instead of watching Lee take the oath as the first Black woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress, her mother and grandmother were dozing off in the House gallery as a Republican standstill over electing a new speaker dragged into its eighth hour.

“I said to the man next to me, ‘This is taking a while, huh?’” said Lee’s mom, Shelda Lee. Later, she realized he was Paul Pelosi.

Unable to wait out the stalemate, Lee’s family drove back to Western Pennsylvania, and four days later, Lee took the oath in a quiet ceremony around 3 a.m.

But even if all had gone as planned, Lee said, she wouldn’t have felt like celebrating. Surviving a brutal election left her a little hardened, and the pressure of making sure she’s not the last Black woman to represent Pennsylvania has her focused.

“When you’re a Black woman, that ceiling’s not even glass. It’s cement. And you get scarred doing it,” Lee said in a recent interview. “And then you’re sworn in and you realize you’re here for an uncomfortable job, to do very uncomfortable things, to push ... a system that is so deeply entrenched ... that your role is to kind of just chip away at it.”

Lee, 35, has been challenging authority since she was a teenager arguing with a substitute teacher about Christopher Columbus’ role in history, recalled her mother, whose family has roots in the civil rights movement.


Her political career has been an ongoing battle against the status quo. She ran and won two statehouse primary elections without the support of the Democratic Party and then built a pipeline for other progressive candidates in Western Pennsylvania. She prevailed last year in a tough, competitive congressional primary on an unabashedly progressive platform over a more traditional candidate. With her win, the Pittsburgh-area 12th District went from being represented by a white male party stalwart who had been in the seat since 1994 to the most progressive Pennsylvanian to make it to Congress.

“I think Summer really is a case study in how progressives who’ve done the work and earned a reputation on a local level are best equipped to withstand dark-money last-minute attacks,” said Adam Green, cofounder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a national political action committee that ran ads for her. “In other districts, other people ... were easily defined by millions of dollars in attack ads. She had such a strong local reputation for being an effective progressive who is of the people.”

Now Lee joins a wave of lawmakers that includes Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D- N.Y., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., who are gaining prominence in the tightly divided House. The 5-foot-2 Lee, who prefers hot chocolate to coffee and unwinds with General Hospital and Sunday family dinners, said she feels the pressure of her historic role but has no plans of keeping quiet in it.

Five years before winning her Pittsburgh-area congressional seat, Lee was a recent Howard Law graduate, staying at her mom’s house and trying to figure out what came next.


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