News and social media documented the historic diversity of the 116th Congress with images of women dressed in colorful traditional clothing and little girls gazing with pride as their mothers took the oath of office.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the first woman to serve as House speaker, regained the gavel Thursday, thanks to Democrats retaking control of the chamber after winning a majority of the congressional district races in the November midterm elections.
A record-setting 36 new women joined the House on Thursday, bringing the total number of female representatives to 102, an all-time high. Among the new congresswomen were the first female Muslim and first Native American members of the chamber.
Women of color were, in fact, the big winners in this year’s congressional races, said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.
Women of color represent 42 percent of the women in the House, which is about on par with their percentage among women in the general population, Dittmar said. It’s a trend that has been building over the past few congressional election cycles, she said, noting that in 2016, women of color were a majority of new women elected to Congress. It was two years ago that Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) became the first Latina and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) became the second black woman elected to the Senate.
Women of color, and black women in particular, are the most loyal Democratic voters. In recent years they have put pressure on the Democratic Party to be more supportive of their candidacies, such as with Rep. Lauren Underwood, initially thought to be a long shot to win a mostly white, Republican-leaning district in Illinois. In other instances, they defied party leaders and struck out on their own, as happened with Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who took down a 20-year Democratic veteran in Massachusetts.
This diverse group of women took their seats on the 50th anniversary of Shirley Chisholm, a New York Democrat, being sworn in as the first black congresswoman.
Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016 has propelled thousands of women to run for elected office — from the local to the national levels — during the past two years.
But overall, women remain underrepresented in our national legislature. Women, who are 51 percent of the U.S. population, now make up 24 percent of Congress. White men are still the majority in Congress: more than 6 in 10.
Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, summed up the feeling that although there is much to celebrate in the diversity of the new Congress, there also is more work to be done to make the body look more like the population of the country.
“While this Congress represents a step forward towards a more reflective democracy, including a number of inspiring ‘firsts’ — the first Native American women, the first Muslim American women, the first openly bisexual Senator — I look forward to when reflective political leadership is as unremarkable as the white male domination of our current system.”
Although white men are about a third of the U.S. population, they hold almost two-thirds of elected offices on local, state and federal levels, according to a 2017 report by the Reflective Democracy Campaign.
As part of the report, the campaign surveyed about 800 registered voters, and, Carter said in an interview: “We discovered that voters underestimate the extent to which white men dominate elected office. Voters think elected officeholders are more racially diverse and female than they are.” More than half of the 529 women who filed to run for Congress in 2018 lost during their primaries. The 127 women now in Congress, including 25 in the Senate, represent about half of the women who were on the November ballot.
“The system still favors the usual suspects,” Carter said. The “system” to which Carter is referring includes the major political parties, groups that finance candidates and organizations that mobilize voters, such as labor unions. All often back incumbents or candidates who have been anointed by the party.
“The playing field is by no means level, and in spite of the fact that there were really significant increases in the percentage of women, and particularly women of color, who were on the general election ballot this year, it’s still a very small minority of all candidates,” Carter said.
All but one of the 36 new female representatives in the House are Democrats. Including the Senate, Democratic women outnumber Republicans 106 to 21. In the Reflective Democracy Campaign report, Democratic voters were much more likely to say that more women and people of color should be elected to office than Republicans. The GOP generally argues that ability and personal character are more important qualities than race and gender.
Dittmar is cautiously optimistic that the number of women in Congress will continue to grow. “In some ways the 2018 election could be seen as energizing to women broadly and women of color specifically. Because of their successes, hopefully it will be inspiration and keep the energy going and expand the pool of potential candidates.”
“When you can look at Congress and see more people who look like you in office, you can see it as a possibility,” she said, noting that Muslim women will be inspired by Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Native American women now have role models in Reps. Debra Haaland (D-N.M.) and Sharice Davids (D-Kan.).
“It’s disrupting our perception of what political leaders look like,” Dittmar said. She added that she hopes their example will not only prompt more women to run but also will make voters see women as more viable candidates.