When the 116th Congress convened last week, 25 women were sworn in as senators, and a stunning 102 women became members of the House of Representatives, 43 of them women of color. For the first time in our nation’s history, nearly one-fourth of Congress is composed of women members — nowhere near our 51 percent of the population but far above the paltry numbers of the past.
And, oh, the diversity! At 29, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest woman to serve in Congress. Two Muslim women were sworn in, one of them wearing a traditional Palestinian gown, a colorful throbe. The other, a Somali native, recalled her arrival to the United States with her father 23 years ago from a refugee camp in Kenya.
Kansas and New Mexico sent the first Native American women to Congress. Marsha Blackburn and Cindy Hyde-Smith became the first women senators from Tennessee and Mississippi, respectively. Six states — Arizona, California, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire and Washington — are now represented by two women Senators. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is the first openly bisexual person ever sworn into the U.S. Senate.
Our U.S. Congress remains overwhelmingly white and male, but it is beginning to look more like the rest of America than it ever has.
The gains for women are unequal viewed through a partisan lens, however. Far more women ran and won as Democrats than as Republicans, who lost 10 women House members, down from 23 in the last Congress to 13 today. Of the 127 women now serving in Congress, 21 are Republicans. Of the 36 new women members of the House, one is a Republican. Republicans picked up two new women senators, but it is clear that for all sorts of reasons, Republican women remain on the elective sidelines.
Two questions seem obvious. Why is this pink wave happening now, and why is it important?
Many American women were stunned by the election of Donald Trump. Add in the #MeToo movement ignited by sexual harassment and assault from Trump, media moguls and stars, chefs and bosses of all stripes, and women reached a breaking point.
We ran for election to offices at local levels and to win positions as governors and members of Congress, and more of us won than ever before. We are doing so at younger ages, often without prior experience in public life, much less public office. Books are being written about this, including “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” a New York Times best-seller by Rebecca Traister and a powerful and profane look at the lives of American women in workplaces dominated and controlled by men.
It is critical that women serve in public office, because we make up more than half of our nation’s population and because our life experiences are different from those of men, not better or worse but different in all respects.
From childhood, girls and boys experience the world in different ways, just as we do as adults. Like it or not, women continue to shoulder most household responsibilities, including child care and homemaking chores. This does not mean we come to elected responsibilities, from school board to U.S. president, with more skills than men but with different perspectives.
This difference was summed up nicely on a Christmas towel someone sent me online, which read, “Wise women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stables, made a casserole, brought practical gifts, and there would be Peace on Earth.”
Neither approach is wrong, just different. The same is true of women in elective office. Some are better at their jobs than their men counterparts, and some are not. Both perspectives are needed at the table when public policy for all is being made.
It is clear that some of us are threatened by changes in American demographics, culture and governance. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus understood that people struggle with change when he wrote, “the only thing that is constant is change.”
American women are going through significant change now, and our nation will be better for it.