Longform

DESCENT OF A WOMAN

"I think I was like a little girl at Christmas," Karan English says.
With the McDowell Mountains behind her and a dozen rapt faces before her, English is sitting in the library of north Scottsdale's Mountainside Middle School, telling the student council about her first year as Arizona's first congresswoman in almost six decades.

Appropriately enough, the student council is composed entirely of girls.
English tells them, on this sunny day in November, about NAFTA. And about her committee assignments, and about how she is nearly moved to tears each time she walks out of her Washington, D.C., apartment and gazes in awe at the Capitol dome. The girls are enchanted. The librarian, the principal--even the district superintendent--look on, all smiles.

The congresswoman wears a slate-blue suit that matches the hue of her eyes, the skirt reaching just below the knee, and a long, double strand of pearls. Flat, black loafers. When she smiles, which is often, deep grooves settle around her mouth. English scarcely looks her 44 years--except, perhaps, for her freckled, wrinkled hands.

English is warming up; she's broached the subject of women in Congress, and this is fertile ground. The number of women elected to serve in the House of Representatives doubled last year, she tells the girls, which was quite a shock to Washington! And it was she, English adds, who was selected by Life magazine as the "typical new woman" in Congress. Life followed her around for six whole weeks, she says. "Boy, was it a pain!" But "there were some really nice parts, too." She clearly is pleased with the results, with the notoriety, and she promises to send the students a copy of the story. As a car carries her away from the middle school, it's mentioned to English that some Washington types are suggesting that she's actually started to believe that story in Life magazine. "Oh, man!" she says, mouth gaping. "Who said that? Oh, man. You know what? It is a different person. The Life magazine and what the press has made out of me is not me. It is a different person. And you know what? I see it as a different person. It's very weird. It's, like, how can anybody believe all that stuff?"

Karan English is one of the U.S. House's most famous freshmen--and one of its most confused.

She basks in the limelight, then complains of sunburn. Blazes trails as an environmentalist, then veers from the path when she sees the yellow brick road to reelection. Speaks poetically of making America a better place for all children, then tells her staff that she took this job--member of Congress--for the salary, so she can send her own kids to college.

She has been portrayed as the quintessential New Woman in Congress, but it looks more every day as if she'll be a one-termer.

@rule:
@body:For its April 1993 edition, Life snapped shots of English giggling with the president and running a vacuum cleaner in her office. The reporter painted a romantic word picture of English's journey from neighborhood activist to the Coconino County Board of Supervisors to the Arizona State Legislature and, finally, to Congress.

Only passing reference is made to the "tight schedules and arcane rules" of Capitol Hill. Instead, the reader is treated to an update of the congresswoman's marital status and the plaintive line, "It's hard not to feel empathy for her as she takes her place in the nation's capital . . . leaving her loved ones behind."

Life failed to report that, long before its April issue had gone to press, English had alienated herself from Senator Dennis DeConcini, the Arizona Democrats' deal maker on Capitol Hill. Or that she had yet to retire an $88,000 campaign debt. Or that her staff, uncertain how to proceed, wound up decorating empty bookshelves in English's Washington office with legal tomes rummaged from garbage bins.

Shortly after the Life story hit the stands, Karan English would bungle her first floor amendment, fire her first chief of staff and infuriate her constituents with votes she swears came from the heart--but which others view as concessions to the House Democratic leadership and to President Bill Clinton.

News of her disorganized staff and disenchanted voters has been mentioned briefly in the local press, but more space has been devoted to the congresswoman's awestruck musings about Washington, via a periodic "journal" she wrote for the Arizona Republic. Nationally, English has made headlines mainly for nonlegislative matters, such as her quest to use the all-male congressional gym without phoning ahead. In its August 1993 issue, Vogue magazine illustrated a feature, "Women on the Hill," with a full-page photograph of Representative English reclining between votes on a government-issue leather couch, resting tired, pantyhosed feet.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.