Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley is the first woman of color to be elected to Congress from Massachusetts. She is a member of “The Squad.”
Who Is Ayanna Pressley?
A Chicago native, Ayanna Pressley moved to Boston to attend college, and began her political career working for Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, before working for then-Senator John Kerry in various roles for 13 years. Before her election to Congress, where she became part of a group known as “The Squad,” Pressley served as the Boston City Council’s first elected woman of color.
Early Life and Education
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio on February 3, 1974, and raised in what she described as a “tough” Chicago neighborhood, Ayanna Soyini Pressley is the only child of tenants’ rights organizer Sandra Pressley and Martin Terrell, who struggled with heroin addiction and spent 16 years in and out of prison. Pressley’s father later overcame his addiction and became a published author.
She attended Chicago’s private Francis W. Parker School, where she served as class president from 7th grade through her senior year. A cheerleader and debater, she was selected as her graduating class’s commencement speaker, and was named “most likely to be mayor of Chicago.”
While growing up Pressley also modeled and did voiceover work, even appearing in Planned Parenthood ads that ran on Chicago’s city busses.
In 1992, she moved to Boston, Massachusetts to attend Boston University, but never graduated, withdrawing from the college in 1994 to support her family after her mother lost her job as an executive assistant at Time Warner. After leaving the University, Bush worked as a receptionist and a barback and served banquets at the Boston Marriott Copley Place.
Pressley worked for Congressman Kennedy for two years, first as an unpaid intern in his Roxbury office while in college, and then as a paid staffer helping seniors access Social Security benefits.
After volunteering for then-Senator Kerry’s 1996 reelection campaign, she went on to work for the eventual Secretary of State for 13 years in a variety of roles, including constituency director and political director. “Ayanna was a force,” Kerry told The Boston Globe in 2018. “She had enormous focus and drive, a wonderful, outgoing personality, and believed in public service.”
In 2009, she stepped down as Kerry’s employee to launch an at-large campaign for Boston City Council. When Pressley was elected on November 3, 2009, she made history as the first woman of color ever elected to the council. With successful reelection campaigns in 2011 and 2013, she again made history as the first person of color and the first woman in 30 years to top the ticket. While serving in the role, she created the Committee on Healthy Women, Families, and Communities to spotlight stable families, reduce violence and poverty, and promote women’s issues.
Pressley was elected to represent Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives in November 2018, unseating 10-term congressman, Michael Capuano. Along with fellow representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, she became known as one of The Squad.
“The Squad, as we define it, is anyone who is building a more equitable and just world,” she told The Washington Post in 2020. “So that is more than four people. The Squad is big. Think of us as representatives of a larger community. The very first one-minute [speech] that I gave on the floor, I said, ‘I come as one, and I stand as thousands.’ That’s Maya Angelou. That’s what the Squad is to me. But it’s something that some people have tried to negatively co-opt. And, again, to weaponize.”
In January 2020, Pressley revealed in a video for The Root that she has alopecia, the official medical term for baldness, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. “I’ve only been bald in the privacy of my home and in the company of close friends,” she explained, adding that she felt it was important to be transparent to help others dealing with the same diagnosis.
Pressley shared that her last bit of hair fell out in December 2019. “I am making peace with having alopecia,” she said. “I am very early in my alopecia journey. But I’m making progress every day… It’s about self-agency, it’s about power, it’s about acceptance.”
Pressley revealed in 2011 that she had been raped both during childhood and when she was a 19-year-old Boston University student. According to The Boston Globe, she was working as a resident assistant the summer after her freshman year someone she knew raped her, but she never reported the assault because of the social isolation and shame she felt.
She described how the experience shaped her later life in Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman’s January 2020-released anthology, Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World: “I want a world where survivors are believed and validated and supported. I also want a world where within a generation the number of those impacted by sexual violence plummets.”
Pressley met husband Conan Harris, then the manager of an anti-violence initiative called StreetSafe Boston, in 2011, and the pair married three years later in 2014. She became a stepmom to Harris’ daughter, Cora, calling her role as a “bonus mom” a gift. “It was inferred that by calling Cora my step-daughter, I am creating a distinction or a step down,” she tweeted of her “healthy blended family” in 2019. “There is no distinction in my heart and she is without question my child.”
Before meeting Pressley, Harris, who worked as a public safety aide to Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh before becoming executive director of My Brother’s Keeper Boston, spent 10 years in prison for drug trafficking. In 2020, he testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on barriers to making a successful return from prison and reintegrating into communities.