Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) is chair of the House Financial Services Committee. (KK Ottesen/For The Washington Post)

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, 81, is a Democrat from California and chair of the House Financial Services Committee. A past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Waters is the most senior African American woman in Congress.

You are a popular villain on Fox — called a divider and things like that. Does that bother you?

Let me just say, in this business, [if] you are someone who is intimidated, or afraid of criticism, or it stymies you and your ability to do work, I don’t know how you do this job, really. You’re going to be criticized. You’re going to be called names. So I’m not bothered by that, no. You’ve got to know who you are. Because until you know who you are and what you care about and what you’re willing to fight about, it’s difficult to be tough enough to meet situations in the way I think you ought to.

Back in the day, we used to do “encounter groups,” where people get together, share their experiences and reveal themselves. Really coming to grips with who you are and what you want to do. And it was in those encounter groups that I really learned what I liked, what I disliked and how to talk about it. And it’s through all of that that I became me. It was very empowering.

So then you decided to run [for office]?

Yes. It was the time when the women's rights movement really was blossoming. And I can recall going throughout the neighborhood talking with a lot of women and them saying, "Why not? Why not a woman?" You know: "It's time." I was fortunate enough to be connected with the National Organization for Women and another organization identifying women for appointments and encouraging women to get elected. So not only was I interested in running, but I was encouraged to run. And that took me into the California legislature.

The first day or so I felt bold enough to introduce legislation. And boy, did those men pounce on me! Because, at the time, they called everybody "assemblyman." Why do they do that? I'm not "assemblyman." I thought it should be changed. I think I tried "assemblywoman." Then finally "assembly member." Of course, I can remember the pushback from men. It was: "New member, stay in your place." And "How dare you come here and try and change the historical name of the members of this house." But Willie Brown, who was a leader in the legislature at that time, came to my defense.

That was my first [political] learning experience. But the big thing that happened to me was I got involved with the national women's community — with Bella Abzug out of New York and Gloria Steinem and Patsy Mink and others. Gloria asked me to serve on the board of the Ms. Foundation [for Women], where I was able to see all of the unsolicited proposals that came in — from women in coal-mining country, women needing places to go to be sheltered from domestic violence. Of course, it was not only eye-opening, it was the kind of learning experience that helped me to be a better public policymaker.

So fast-forward — this is your 15th term in Congress now. That’s a long time. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of change.

Oh, absolutely I’ve seen a lot of change. I’ve seen, of course, the growth of women. I mean, I’m here when Nancy Pelosi is the first woman speaker of the House of Representatives . Women as committee chairs: Nita Lowey controlling the Appropriations Committee. For the Congress of the United States, that’s a big one. I’m chair of Financial Services. So I’ve seen struggles. I’ve seen growth. And I’ve seen men gaining more respect for women policymakers and politicians.

Your “reclaiming my time” [during a Financial Services Committee hearing in 2017] went viral — was that surprising?

Yeah, that surprised me. Because I didn't create it. That is the regular order of business to get your time back after it's been imposed on by your witness. So members have used that; I wasn't the first. I think it took off because I think that people may have been paying attention to Cabinet members now who were chosen by the president. And I think that, when you have [Treasure Secretary Steven] Mnuchin in front of me, here is this African American woman who was being forceful. Because I didn't say it one time. I said it several times, you know. I didn't scream. I didn't shout. Just: "Reclaiming my time." And it caught on.

A lot of people have decried the president’s rhetoric as divisive, saying we need to raise the level of civility. But you have been more of a fight-fire-with-fire type. Like when Sarah Huckabee Sanders [got] booted from a restaurant, you went on talk shows and spoke at a rally afterward.

That’s right. I said: If you see people who are part of this administration carrying out the kind of policies that are harmful — I’m just kind of paraphrasing all this now — you say, “You’re not welcome here.”

Of course, we got a big backlash. And Nancy [Pelosi] got frightened about it, and [Chuck] Schumer, and they had their say and what have you. But I believe in protest. I believe in organizing power to resist discrimination, resist racism, resist womanizing — all of that. I’m an activist legislator. And while my public policy is very important, organizing is very important to me, too.

So you feel like that’s part of your job here?

That’s part of my job — and life. I am someone who resists unfairness. Unfairness, to me, taking advantage of people — and particularly the most vulnerable — is something that stirs a passion in me. Here in the Capitol, the women that work in the restaurant, they come to me. They’re not my constituents. But they know enough about me to know that if they need some help, I will be an advocate. And the guys who drive our little train who have problems, they come to me. They are people that I respect. And I think that should be treated with respect. That’s who I am. That’s what I speak to. And that’s what I act on.

When the speaker or other people say we need a more civil discourse, what do you say to that?

Oftentimes, when people talk about civility, for me, it’s political talk that sounds good and may endear you to a lot of people. A lot of times, this is saying, “I want it to be peaceful, and I want it to be nice,” without understanding deeply, perhaps, what you’re saying. You want it to be civil in spite of … ? That’s what the civil rights movement was all about: not to be quiet and to make other people feel more comfortable.

The only thing that I try to incorporate is not to be disrespectful to people unless they have demonstrated that they’re not respectful and they’re willing to do things that are harmful to people who are powerless — I think that’s a terrible thing to do. I never take advantage of vulnerable people.You know what I’m saying? If I want to fight, I want to fight with the lions.

This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen’s latest book, “Activist: Portraits of Courage,” will be published in October. Follow KK on Twitter:  @kkOttesen.