The 113th Congress’s record-setting number of women representatives is an inspiration to many Americans that gender inequality in Washington is slowly declining. For artist Emily Nemens, the chambers’ women are more literally an inspiration: their style– “a rainbow of powersuits, gaudy jewelry, big hair and congressional pins” meets “genuine character, strength and beauty”– has motivated her to hand-paint each of their portraits with watercolors and post them to her Tumblr “Women of the 113th.”
The visual appeal of two female politicians in particular, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, captivated Nemens: that of strident conservative Michele Bachmann and consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren.
“I was watching the republican primary debates in spring 2011, and was overwhelmed by how hard [Bachmann] was trying to look feminine, while trying to spar with all the other contenders,” Nemens says. “Neither effort was entirely successful, but it got me thinking: how do female politicians present themselves?”
There are lots of ways, of course. There’s the beaming, election-night smile of Warren, which inspired Nemens, the rotating hat supply of Florida’s Federica Wilson, and the cool-librarian glasses of Arizona newcomer Kyrsten Sinema.
Nemens originally completed watercolor portraits of 94 women in the 112th Congress on 6-by-6-inch pieces of paper. When the 113th began, she created a new Tumblr and updated it to include the new members.
It’s possible to say such a project places undue importance on the appearance of female politicians. Nemens argues that the project is meant to play with notions of beauty and power. “I like playing with traditionally feminine imagery, working small but sequentially, until the icon loses its initial meaning, or turns into a monster-wave version of the original idea.” As she writes on her Tumblr from the 112th: “These politicians are necessarily one part peacock, one part Fabergé. It reminds us that there is still a different set of expectations for women in power than the navy suits and red ties of their male counterparts.”
Between the two congresses, Nemens has created 60 feet of painting, “ideally arranged chromatically, by power suit,” she adds. But often, they’re arranged as the building blocks of infographics to tell stories about the current set of female representatives. There’s a map of the U.S. showing which states are represented by females. There’s a diagram comparing the age of the women to number of years served. For Mother’s Day, Nemens created a pictograph sorting the women by number of children they have. (The most common number of children for congressional females? 2. The largest? 10! The brood of Gloria Negrete-McLeod from California.)
While the portraits have gotten plenty of exposure on the Internet, Nemens says she’s still looking for somewhere to show them IRL.