Women Changing U.S. Politics
By Miriam Levitin
The 2018 midterm election has set records for women in Congress, with more than 250 women on the ballot, and over 100 women winning elections across the nation. Forty-two are women of color, and many are openly LGBTQ-identifying. Tennessee elected their first female senator, and South Dakota and Maine elected their first female governors. Seventeen Black women were elected judges in one Texas county. Pennsylvania previously had no women delegates – now they have four. Thirty-three congressional races featured women facing off against other women.
When Sharice Davids, member of Ho-Chunk Nation, won a seat in the House of Representatives, she became the first lesbian congresswoman from Kansas, and one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. She is also the first openly LGBT woman of color in Congress. On election night she said, “We know there are so many of us who welcome everyone. Who see everyone, who know that everyone should have the opportunity to succeed, and today we showed that.”
The other elected Native American woman is Debra Haaland of New Mexico, a single mom and member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. Out of about 12,000 people elected to Congress since 1789, only 300 have been Native American – none of whom were women. She told Vox about her campaign, “Just because you’re the first Native woman doesn’t mean you get any breaks. I think we’ve been working toward this moment; however, it’s not something that’s freely given.”
Danica Roem is the first trans person elected to Virginia legislature, and the first to serve as openly transgender in any U.S. state legislature. On her platform based on seemingly mundane concerns, she explained to Vox that, “You can’t just say, ‘I hate Trump, vote for me.’ That doesn’t win you the House of Delegates. If you can’t speak fluently about your local issues, you’re just not going to win, period.”
Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are the first Muslim women in Congress. Omar is also the first Somali American, first Muslim refugee, and first hijab-wearing Muslim woman elected to Congress, and the first woman of color to represent Minnesota in Congress. In her victory speech, Omar said, “Here in Minnesota, we don’t only welcome immigrants; we send them to Washington.”
Kyrsten Sinema is the nation’s first openly bisexual senator, and Arizona’s first woman senator. Ayanna Pressley is the first Black congresswoman representing Massachusetts, and she beat a longtime incumbent in the primaries. Jahana Hayes is Connecticut’s first Black congresswoman. Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia are the first two Latina congresswomen representing Texas. Young Kim is the first Korean American woman in Congress.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, is the youngest woman elected to Congress. She won the primary against a 10-term incumbent. She told The Cut, “I felt like the only way to effectively run for office is if you had access to a lot of wealth, high social influence, a lot of high dynastic power, and I knew that I didn’t have any of those things.” Visiting North Dakota during the pipeline protests inspired her to work for her own community. In a victory speech she stated, “This is not the end. This is the beginning.”
Women are still far from having equal representation, as they make up 50% of the U.S. population yet only 1 in 5 members of Congress. Out of the women who do hold Congressional positions, not all actively work to further women’s rights. For example, Tennesse’s first woman senator Marsha Blackburn voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act, a law proposed to address the gender pay gap.
Compared to men running for office, women have always faced pressure to be not only qualified, but also likeable. Perhaps the greatest change this election season was a radical shift in the way that women were able to express themselves in their campaigns. They embraced their gender, and other aspects of their identities, as assets rather than obstacles. They eradicated conventional norms of presenting their public lives in a strictly professional light, vulnerably connecting to citizens on a personal level.
Iowa Representative Abby Finkenauer opened up about her student loan debt, her father’s struggle for employment, and her baby nephew. Texan MJ Hegar shared her family, her air force veteran status, her tattoos, and her childhood abuse story in advertisements. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Bladwin’s mother’s drug abuse informed her support of constituents who have lost loved ones to opioids. Georgian Stacey Abrams opened up about her brother’s mental health and addiction struggles. New Yorker Liuba Grechen Shirley successfully fought the Federal Election Commission to allow campaign funds to go toward childcare.
Women also played a role in canvassing, fundraising, and voting for other women. Donations from women to Republican men have plummeted since 2016, but donations from women to Democratic women have skyrocketed, representing nearly half of donations to women candidates in the House and Senate. Despite women not raising as much money as men for their campaigns, and many having little experience in politics, they are making history every election. The political system is still structurally oppressive, but as it still exists, women are doing what they can to bring about change.
When I was a kid, I wrote in my diary that I aspired to be the first woman president. I admire the grace, poise, and unwavering strength shown by Secretary Clinton in the face of sexism and humiliation during her presidential campaign, and I am not sure if I would ever be able to do the same. However, I have hope that as women continue to fight for representation, they will in turn inspire more women to run for office, and together we can envision and construct a more equitable society.