Don't Worry Babes, The Pink Wave is Still Cresting
2018 was a record-setting year for women serving in the 116th Congress, where female distribution reached the highest its been in the 243-year-old history of the United States. According to the United States Census Bureau, as of July 2018, 50.8 percent of the United States population identify as female. However, women comprise just a quarter—23.4 percent, to be exact—of the United States House of Representatives.
In 2010, that number was 110. In 2018, it was 127. Perhaps the biggest coup is the election of an all-time-high 43 women of color to the House. Political pundits and statisticians alike note the candidates swayed overwhelmingly Democrat, with just one female Republican candidate elected (Rep. Carol Miller of West Virginia). We’ve still got a long way to go toward an equal distribution of voting power on the basis of gender alone. Celebrating these milestones is critical, a rallying call to keep going.
Representatives Pramila Jayapal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and others are dominating the news cycle with policy and spirited debates on healthcare, ICE, gun control and other topics. You likely know their names and faces. They talk policy on Twitter. They’re wearing red lipstick and hoops to emulate Sonia Sotomayor and take a stand through their style. They’re advocating equal pay for all. These Congresswomen are redefining their roles for the 21st century. There is danger of losing the vision, best evidenced through internalized sexism and racism that the Representatives endure on a daily basis. There are the old, familiar stories of income inequality in Congress, where the disparity ranges up to $15,000 between some committee positions.
Then there are fluff pieces on how “relatable” a Congresswoman is. There’s nitpicky criticisms of any Instagram Live or tweet. The spin of female mentorship as a “maternal” quality. When the New York Times calls Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib “outspoken” and “abrasive,” it diminishes these women into categorizations and reduces them to stereotypes. Othering our elected officials only serves to distract from policy in our swirling, volcanic news cycle, tactics used to diminish their accomplishments. When they are diminished in their work, so are we—in our own businesses, offices and board meetings. When subject to arbitrary codes of conduct, our government implies that women should shrink their personalities, their clothing, their policies to fit into the mold of what a Congress member has looked like in the past. (Let’s just bring back those chic powdered wigs while we’re at it.) There is no one way to be an elected official (although, historically, that “one way” is white, male and over 35 years old). One of the biggest challenges for American politics in 2020 and beyond is to see diversity in policy, behavior and personality as a good thing.
In “Feminist Theory: From Margins to Center,” author, activist and advocate bell hooks writes: “Feminism defined in political terms that stress collective as well as individual experience challenges women to enter a new domain—to leave behind the apolitical stance sexism decrees is our lot and develop political consciousness.” While we are making small advancements towards representation of women and people of color in elected offices, considering both the individual experience and the collective is crucial.
In American politics, the individual personality often wins out over the policies in question—the sound bite, the viral clip, the inspiring candidate. But when we introduce more voices (and more diverse voices) into the mix, we’re slowly leveling the playing field to open our political arena. Only then can we address questions like: What about the untold stories of millions of voters? What about the LGBTQ community and nonbinary people? How can we elevate their cultural position so that lawmakers and policy drivers consider issues that matter to millions of Americans?
With presidential-hopefuls climbing out of the woodwork to stake their claim on 2020, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture: consistently electing officials who align with your values and vision of America. Electing officials who mirror the diverse and ever-changing American socio-political landscape. Using every opportunity to vote to raise the voices of the marginalized, knowing when to stand up, knowing when to step back, knowing when to listen.
The future of representation in Congress is up to you. All 435 seats in the House and 33 Senate seats will be up for election next year in 2020. Organizations like She Should Run have incubator programs to provide mentorship and resources to women interested in running for public office.
You don’t have to be perfect to run. Look at the highly-publicized story of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had less than $7,000 in savings when she decided to run for Congress. When the ability to run (and win) a Congressional seat isn’t tied to personal wealth and becomes accessible to more than the One Percent, we’re inching closer to a government that actually mirrors its population, and represents the best interests of that population.
So, why not you? Check out the information in your state to see what qualifications you must meet to run. (And it doesn’t have to be Congress—you can start at a local, municipal level with the City Commissioners Office or City Council.) And sure, it doesn’t even have to be running for office. But if the election of more Congresswomen than ever before inspires you, start by asking yourself one simple question: How can I use my voice in 2020 to further the march toward equal representation in public office?
And then go do it.
Caitland is a writer and editor based in New York by way of Tallahassee, Florida. She recently traded in her 9 to 5—and the ability to sing the Dolly Parton song—to freelance. In her free time, she runs Prospect Park, and stops to get coffee on the way to get coffee.