When the next Congress convenes, there will be 20 women in the United States Senate—the highest number in American history. Every member of the New Hampshire Congressional delegation is now a woman, as is the state's new governor. Wisconsin voters elected Tammy Baldwin, making her the first openly gay woman in Senate history. And, for the first time, white men will not be a majority in the House Democratic Caucus. This is, indeed, an historic election for women—as well as young voters, Latinos and other previously marginalized parts of our electorate who are increasing their power and influence in American politics.
Admittedly, it’s not as if the women in Congress will be running the place. In that body’s entire history, just 27 women have chaired committees, which is where the real power lies. In our most current Congress, the 112th, only one woman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chaired a committee (Foreign Affairs). That's right, just one.
Yes, Nancy Pelosi was the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives, an extremely powerful position that is also only two heartbeats away from the presidency. She remains Minority Leader, but she is the only woman in either party's top congressional leadership.
But change is a direction, not a destination, and this election demonstrates that, for women, politics is changing for the better. Yes, this campaign year was marred by male candidates making outlandish and offensive statements about “legitimate rape” and pregnancy after rape as “something God intended to happen” (Tina Fey’s response to such comments: “What is happening? Am I a secretary on Mad Men?”). But those two Senatorial hopefuls (Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana) lost their races, despite having been heavy favorites before their remarks. And women in both parties triumphed in elections throughout the country. Republican Senator-elect Deb Fischer from Nebraska will join new Senate Democrats Baldwin, Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts) and Mazie Hirono (Hawai'i) in the next Congress. And in terms of governors’ houses, Maggie Hassan (D-NH) now has one of her own, along with current Republican governors Nikki Haley (SC), Mary Fallin (OK), Susana Martinez (NM) and Jan Brewer (AZ). We have not yet arrived at elected leadership that mirrors the gender and racial diversity of voters, but we're getting there—which is a big step on our path to a more perfectly democratic union.
When John Adams was in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress of 1776, Abigail Adams beseeched him in a letter to “remember the ladies" in drawing up the country's new code of laws, "and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” Women are not yet as powerful as they should be in Congress, but they are in the room and their numbers are growing. As Mrs. Adams would surely be pleased to know, they can speak for themselves and their own interests. And their votes cannot be taken for granted. If their male counterparts of either party manage to forget that, the rising powerhouse of female leaders is sure to remind them.
Sally Kohn is a writer, television pundit and communications consultant. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, Reuters, USA Today, Politico and Time.
Photo credits: Mazie Hirono, by Ed Morita; Elizabeth Warren, © by Ken Wiedemann; Deb Fisher, Courtesy of Deb Fisher; Kelly Ayotte, U.S. Senate Photographic Studio, Frank Fey