The recent mid-term elections have been historic in numerous ways – even the losses have been semi-wins for supporters of progressive candidates as the results have been really close, bringing about recounts in several cases.
What do we take away from the final results? Democrats now control the House, but beyond the blue-red tug-of-war, there were significant wins that will bring about a stronger democracy. There was a “pink wave” with truly historic numbers of women, Black women in particular being elected, sometimes flipping long held red strongholds. 256 women qualified for the November ballot in House or Senate races and 234 women ran for the House and 22 for the Senate. The 116th Congress will feature the largest number of women in Congress ever. The large number of women running is mostly due to the reaction to the election of Donald Trump as President and his Cabinet that has sought to overturn most gains of the women’s movement in the country. The #MeToo movement played a role as well, by exposing the deeply entrenched sexual harassment and misogyny that women face in almost every arena. Since the 2016 Presidential elections, women have been protesting the regression of women’s rights, attacks on healthcare access and affordability, and the playing down of sexual harassment charges by patriarchal systems.
The swelling ranks of women legislators could be very good for the country. According to research, women legislators sponsor more bills, pass more laws that benefit women and put more money back into their districts. Women tend to be more collaborative and bipartisan, and they often promote bills that are more likely to benefit women and children and focus on education, health and poverty. According to the American Journal of Political Science, women in Congress sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than men do, and bring nearly 10 percent more federal money to their districts.
However, it is not just the fact that record-breaking numbers of women are running for office and getting elected. Most of these women stand for progressive values and seek to dismantle the current power structures in government that they see as not pro-people.
The “Class of 2019” Democrats is extremely exciting with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 28, who would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and would also be one of the first sitting members of Congress who’s a dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Two Muslim-American women are also headed to Congress, Rashida Tlaib will be the first Palestinian-American woman and Ilhan Omar will be the first Somali-American woman to serve in Congress. Debra Haaland will be the first Native American woman ever elected to Congress after winning her primary in New Mexico’s 1st district and Madeleine Dean will be the first woman to represent Pennsylvania in Congress since 2014. Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland are the first Native American women elected to Congress, Sharice Davids, a lawyer and a former mixed martial arts fighter, also identifies as a lesbian, making her the first openly LGBT member of Congress from Kansas.
One thing in common among all the first-time future legislators? They are unabashedly for progressive values and social justice. They also represent a new way forward, away from the tired strategies and compromised values of the established political parties.
Young people are disillusioned by the compromises that party politics require, and the Democratic and Republican parties are often seen as two-sides of the same coin that support corporate and military interests over those of the people.
After the mid-term elections, I spoke to Asha Dumonthier, who, in my view, represents a lot of progressive young voters. Asha, who’s mother has Indian origins, works as Campaign Associate at East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy. Young people like Asha are idealistic and distrustful of official party politics. They tend to focus more on local issues such as affordable housing, healthcare and the rights of hotel and domestic workers. Asha, through her work and in her personal life, is putting her energy into local organizing and on living the values she wants to see in the world. These are the voters who are shaping the response to the current administration’s regressive policies.
The large numbers of women running for office and winning also required new strategies and ways of organizing. The New York Times recently featured Way to Win, a coalition of funders and organizations including Solidaire Action Fund, Women Donors Network Action, Democracy in Color, Propel Capital, Movement Voter Project, The Solutions Project, and Groundswell Action Fund. According to their website, “Way to Win is a resource and strategy hub founded in 2017 by a group of donors and organizers seeking a new approach to progressive political funding that wins elections, advances transformative policy, and builds lasting power.”
Way to Win’s “New Southern Strategy,” included steering $22 million to political efforts in the South and Southwest to support outreach and organizing to achieve a progressive agenda.
While the recent election might portend a positive trend, the US has much to learn from other parts of the world. The Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Brnabić, 43, is the first woman and first openly gay person to hold the office in Serbia. In Ethiopia, reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has a new Cabinet comprised of 50% women in a radical overhaul. This was followed by the appointing of the country’s first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde, 68, who has held positions in the United Nations and worked in peacekeeping operations in Africa. Prime Minister Ahmed also appointed women to lead the Defense Ministry and the secret intelligence agency, now called the Ministry of Peace. Also for the first time in the country’s history, Ethiopia has a woman chief justice, Meaza Ashenafi who was nominated by the Prime Minister.
Following in Ethiopia’s footsteps, Rwanda has become the second African nation to have a Cabinet with 50 percent women.
Meanwhile, the US has only about 20 per cent women in government. And while a good start has been made on the road to gender parity in government and to racial and other minority representation, long-term and consistent organizing to promote social justice is urgently required. It is not enough to just have women in office. The new class of women elected to government to serve in the 116th Congress need to continue to embrace and promote the social justice and human rights values that got them elected.
[Shalini Nataraj is currently Vice President of Programs with the Ing Foundation, a private philanthropy focused on advancing human rights. The views expressed in this piece are her own]