113th Congress Welcomes Benches Full of Women

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The women of the 89th Congress, via the U.S. National Archives.

When Nancy Pelosi was a girl, she was fortunate enough to have dinner each night with her hero: her father, Baltimore Mayor Tommy D’ Alesandro. D’Alesandro was, and remains, a legend in Charm City, a figure against which all other mayors are compared (though William Donald Schaefer runs a pretty close second). In the years after the second World War, when Pelosi was growing up, and Baltimore was booming, old, white men dominated the world of politics and women were relegated as an afterthought.

Wednesday, standing behind a podium in the basement of the United States Capitol building, announcing her intention to remain in her role as House Minority Leader, and surrounded by many of the more than five dozen female members representing the 113th Congress, Pelosi gave notice that the old dynamic has changed.

“A picture is worth a thousand words, that’s what they say,” Pelosi said as she swept her arms to show off the women standing beside her. “Well, this picture before you is worth millions of votes.”

Today women account for a slightly larger percentage of the total U.S. population than they did the year Pelosi was born. That year, 1940, there were nine women in Congress, eight House members and just one female senator. In 1987 when she came to Washington for the first time, there were 26 women in Congress. A few years later in 1992, the famous “year of the woman,” the number women serving in the House jumped from 28 to 42 and the number of female senators tripled — to six.

The women standing on the stage with their leader, procedurally and symbolically, represent the newly elected 113th Congress. The legislative body will have 101 women. Eighty-one will serve in the House of Representatives and 20 will serve in the Senate. Both are record numbers.

“These developments are the products of big historical changes,” said Ellen Fitzpatrick, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. “The modern women’s movement and the effectiveness of the women’s political caucus in the 1970’s to engage women and bring them into active political life really helped bring this about.”

There are also a record number of Latinos — 28 — coming to Capitol Hill.

For the first time in history, women and minorities will make up the majority of one party in the House of Representatives. Women’s issues have been prominent legislatively and on the campaign trail. One of the most prominent examples is the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which President Obama regularly and proudly cites as the first bill he signed into law. A campaign that included a focus on health issues and women’s equity and saw both parties wooing female voters helped bring about the largest demographic shift in the history of our national legislative body.

“There have been surges in minority membership at certain moments in the past — Reconstruction, for instance,” said Beverly Gage of Yale University. “But this year’s election is unprecedented both in numbers and in range. We’re not talking about new senators and congressmen from a few isolated pockets of society, but something much more widespread. Women and minority politicians have increased access to both new and established networks of power and influence, and that access has begun to pay off in electoral success.”

Ironically enough, a major factor contributing to this year’s wave was the number of male politicians stumbling over themselves as they indelicately discussed rape and abortion. A pair of Senatorial candidates sealed their fate with insensitive comments. Successful candidates, such as Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, had to survive a barrage of outside spending by deep-pocketed groups on both sides of the aisle.

Self-immolating challengers, strong candidates and a once-in-a-decade redistricting process, made Congress seemingly ripe for a more representative turnover.

“I think what you saw this year is that we had a year full of opportunity,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “In a year after redistricting, there were new and open seats in the House and opportunities for women to run for the largest number of of open seats since 1992.”

In 1992, the year referred to as “the year of the woman,” 39 women ran for open seats, and 22 won. This year, 26 women ran in open-seat elections and 14 won.

See a slide show of women serving in Congress since 1917.

What happened in 1992 was framed by several events during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, but no one event was more symbolically important to the women’s empowerment movement than the 1991 nomination hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Women’s rights were in the national spotlight during hearings as a dozen white male senators questioned Thomas and Anita Hill, an attorney who had previously worked for Thomas who alleged he sexually harassed her during the time she was employed as his assistant.

“We should note the symbolic impact we have with women serving at the highest levels of government,” said Barbara A. Perry, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “That gives these institutions legitimacy because women can now look and say ‘there are more people like me there,’ and it should not be diminished that this is a very important issue for women in this country.”

Measured against a cross-section of America, Congress is still overly populated by older, white men. But that continues to change as more women and minorities fill the seats left empty by the defeated and the retired. In the House next year, women will have a seat at the leadership table in both parties. For the Democrats, Pelosi will remain in her position as Minority Leader, assuming she wins the vote later this month, and there is every indication she will. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was elected to serve as the GOP’s Conference Chair, making the Washington Republican only the third woman to hold the position.

“The barriers have fallen in all ways of American life for women over last 20 years,” Fitzpatrick said. “There have been very profound, social changes, such as the advance of modern feminism and an economy that has made women’s wage work central to American families lives. The combination of these changes has brought an end to a lot of old ways.”

According to the latest U.S. Census, most newborns in the country are minorities and there are four majority-minority states (Hawaii, California, New Mexico and Texas). The world those children occupy will look different than it did in the 1990s, 1980s or 1940s. And as those children grow up, they can look to a new, more diverse, set of role models.

“Having seen the success of a high profile figure like Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi brings down barriers,” Fitzpatrick said. “And once those barriers fall, it gives people the idea that we belong in the House of Representatives and it becomes normal.”

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