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Record number of women in Congress, but still much work to be done | COMMENTARY

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi talks to reporters after she was re-elected to lead her conference at the U.S. Capitol November 18, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi talks to reporters after she was re-elected to lead her conference at the U.S. Capitol November 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America/TNS)

Women have a lot to celebrate this election season. The most obvious reason, of course, is the elevation and historic rise of California Sen. Kamala Harris to vice president elect — the first women and Black individual (and person of Indian and Jamaican descent, we might add) to serve in the country’s second-highest position. Women reached many other milestones down the ballot as well. In fact, glass ceilings were shattered around the country as the election has brought more women to Congress than ever before.

Women are so far expected to take 141 seats in the U.S. House and Senate, breaking the 2019 record, when 127 women served, according to the Center for American Woman and Politics at the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics. Among those are at least 50 women of color, surpassing the previous record of 48 set in 2019. Federal policies long shaped by men will get the input of women like never before, realizing the dreams of Susan B. Anthony, Shirley Chisholm and a long list of others who have long fought for better gender representation.

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The milestones made by women in politics were both collective and individual as several became “firsts” in their hometowns and states. Democrat Cori Bush became the first Black women to represent Missouri in Congress. New Mexico is the first state to elect all women of color to the U.S. House: Democrats Deb Haaland and Teresa Leger Fernandez and Republican Yvette Herrell . Marilyn Strickland , who is biracial, is the first Korean-American women to be elected to Congress and the first Black woman to represent Washington state. Republican Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma will be the first Iranian American to serve in Congress. Women were also elevated to many state levels positions, including Delaware Democrat Sarah McBride who became the country’s first transgender state senator.

More women will lead the executive branches of state governments, too. In total, 94 women will serve as governor, lieutenant governor and other statewide offices, surpassing the past record of 91.

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Even with these too-long-in-the-making breakthroughs, the country is far from gender equity in politics. More woman than ever still means that women make up just around 26% of all congressional members, despite making up about 51% of the population. Men, who number 394 in Congress to women’s 141, still dominate. And that is to our entire country’s shame and detriment. The Congress should represent its constituents; it’s very simple.

It should be noted that the growth in women’s representation was driven in large part by the election of female Republicans, many of whom helped to turn blue states red, including Cuban American journalist Maria Elvira Salazar, who defeated President Bill Clinton’s former health secretary Rep. Donna Shalala in Florida. Yet women in the Republican Party are still woefully underrepresented, overall. This too, must change. Women are not a monolithic voting block and, while they will frequently bring some commonalities to issues, such as the experience of being moms and daughters, they will still offer different perspectives to the political debate on important bipartisan, politically divisive topics, such as abortion and pay equity. And Congress deserves to consider the full spectrum of ideas women have to offer.

We only hope the country continues to gain ground and not only put more woman in elected office, but in prominent positions, heading election campaigns, and in key staff positions in Congress and the presidential Cabinet. President-elect Joe Biden has already awarded campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon with a top job in the White House: deputy chief of staff. And he’s tapped Capitol Hill veteran Louisa Terrell to be his director of legislative affairs.

Also worth celebrating now is Nancy Pelosi’s re-election as speaker of the House, another historic moment for women. When Mr. Biden gives his first State of the Union Speech, he will be flanked by two strong, qualified, capable women. And that’s something to be proud of.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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