Diversity reigns: the women of the 116th US Congress

Published 10th January 2019

There is very little good news coming out of the US these days and US leadership (in the form of the current president and his supporters) is exhibiting deep and vexing shades of racism, bigotry, misogyny and xenophobia. However, the swearing into office of the nation’s most diverse Congress in the history of the country is undoubtedly cause for celebration. The 116th US Congress has a record 102 women forming 23% of Congress. Although there are limits to what one person can achieve in Congress, this is an unprecedented moment that could signal a progressive and positive shift in American politics at a time when such a shift is essential.

The US Congress is the  bicameral legislature and it consists of two houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Needless to say, events in Congress have a significant impact on domestic and foreign policy and therefore its office holders bear the weight of power and responsibility bestowed upon them by their voters. The 116th Congress not only includes more women than ever before, but it includes all sorts of women-women of colour, women from different cultural and religious backgrounds and women of different ages.   

50 years after Shirley Chisholm, teacher and politician, became the first black woman elected  to the House of Representatives in 1968, the US Congress, for the first time ever has over 20 black women.  Amongst them is 44 year old Ayanna Pressley who is the first black Congresswoman from Massachusetts. Pressley is a survivor of child sexual abuse, a staunch advocate for justice, equality, the empowerment of women and upliftment of oppressed communities.

She is joined by another black woman, also a trailblazer in her district, Jahana Hayes who is Connecticut’s first black Congresswoman. A teacher by profession, Hayes believes in robust civic education and access to pre-kindergarten programs for all children in the US.

Breaking ground for other minorities are Sylvia Garcia and Veronica Escobar who are the first Latina Congresswomen from Texas, and Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids who are the first Native American women to make it to Congress.

Davids is a lawyer, a former mixed martial artist and is passionate about equity and representing all communities. She is also openly lesbian. Many view this as a significant milestone for the LGBT community which faces increasing discrimination.

According to an advocacy group, Human Rights Campaign, in 2017 an estimated 120 bills distinct for their anti-LGBT provisions were introduced in 30 states on matters ranging from the adoption of children to a Mississippi law allowing state employees and private businesses to deny services to the LGBT community on the basis of religious objection.  Although what happens at the state level is separate from Congress, this example displays the importance of having representatives who care about the rights of the LGBT community.

The list of impressive pioneers continues with 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who hails from the Bronx in New York and made history by becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Ocasio-Cortez is known for her recognition of climate change and the need to act including pushing for a 100% transition to renewable energy.

Whilst the aforementioned women have truly remarkable biographies, and compelling stories that have made them who they are today, the one who stands out the most in the current American political climate is Ilhan Omar.

Omar is one of the first Muslim women in Congress and the first Somali-American refugee to take a seat in US Congress’s Capitol Building. Omar arrived in America 23 years ago as a Somali refugee fleeing the war and spent 4 years, from ages 8 to 12, in a refugee camp waiting to be relocated to the US. Now, as a member of the Democratic Party, Omar represents Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District.

Omar stands for everything that the current US president has sought to undermine and belittle-women, Muslims and refugees. She embodies hope for all of these people and speaks boldly about, “rejecting the politics of fear and divisiveness.” Omar seeks to encourage America to be inclusive and open and stands in support of the rights of the LGBT community, amongst other causes.

Omar is not the only Muslim woman in Congress, as Rashida Tlaib is also a Muslim and the first Palestinian-American woman to don the title of Congresswoman. She supports the abolishment of the US Immigration Customs Enforcement, and champions the protection of civil rights.

It seems like these are all impressive, visionary politicians seeking to make a change. It remains to be seen how they will fare, but it is safe to say that their personal histories, individuality, aspirations and hopes for a just and tolerant society have already inspired many.

These women are standing in the glow of a momentous time in history but as usual, “the proof is in the pudding” and they have much work ahead. Hopefully, they will live up to the vision they have all eloquently articulated and deliver on promises made. May their election truly embody the words of America’s first black Congresswoman, Chisholm who said,  “my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history.” 

**This article appeared first in the Star Newspaper on 10 January 2019.

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