There is a meme circulating on Facebook that goes something like this: “Ladies—Be sure to wear shoes and watch where you walk. The floors are covered with shattered glass!” The reference, of course, is to the falling of “glass ceilings” with the election in the US of the first female, Black, and Indian American vice president.
It is also significant that this is happening on the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage—white women’s suffrage, that is. Black women and women of color were included in the 19th Amendment but faced the same Jim Crow laws and discrimination that kept them from voting as it did men of color. And while the 19th Amendment was hard fought for and won by suffragettes, the halls of government remained largely closed to women for decades. It wasn’t until 1964, when Hawai‘i elected Rep. Patsy T. Mink, that a woman of color made it to Congress. Mink arrived in time to vote “yes” for the 1965 Voting Rights Act and helped draft Title IX to fight sex discrimination in schools; she was joined by a cadre of sisters who made a difference in Congress over the years but remained far short of gender parity.
Women’s voices and agendas were often given lip service during the 1960s and ’70s, but their numbers in office remained limited. In 1992, gains in women’s representation were seen in Washington after an all-white, all male Judiciary Committee belittled Anita Hill on national television in 1991. Even then, the numbers of women in Congress only increased by four percentage points.
This year, women candidates for Congress had a mixed record. A record number of women ran, and some gains did occur. But those gains are small, and gender parity remains elusive. When the election count is finalized, it is expected that women will hold between 24.5 and 27 percent of congressional seats. That still leaves the governing bodies very male-dominated. It also marks only a modest gain from this year’s Congress, which is 23.7-percent female.
Have things changed? Over the years, women have made many gains, and we have seen some important changes in the past decade. We have watched the #MeToo movement catapult the issues of sexual abuse and harassment to the front stage and seen men in high positions step back under the weight of multiple women stepping forward. We have seen the Black Lives Matter movement, established in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi—three strong, Black, female organizers—grow and put the issues of Black lives front-and-center in the national debate.
Increasingly, despite continuing obstacles, women are assuming their rightful place in political leadership—indeed, in leadership of all realms. This dynamic was clearly seen earlier this year in St. Louis, Missouri, when Cori Bush, a progressive activist who emerged as a leader during the Ferguson uprisings, unseated long-established Representative William Lacy Clay in the August Democratic Party primary.
On November 3rd, the people of her district voted overwhelmingly to send Bush to Congress. She responded with a speech that will echo and stand for many of the women who will follow in her footsteps, whether they run for school board or governor, congress, or president of the United States. It is worth quoting her remarks at length, as Bush relates key moments in her journey from deprivation to Congress:
I was running … I was that person running for my life across a parking lot, running from an abuser. I remember hearing bullets whizz past my head and at that moment I wondered: “How do I make it out of this life?”
I was uninsured. I’ve been that uninsured person, hoping my healthcare provider wouldn’t embarrass me by asking me if I had insurance. I wondered: “How will I bear it?”
I was a single parent. I’ve been that single parent struggling paycheck to paycheck, sitting outside the payday loan office, wondering “how much more will I have to sacrifice?”
I was that COVID patient. I’ve been that COVID patient gasping for breath, wondering, “How long will it be until I can breathe freely again?”
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For years, we’ve lived under leadership that shut us out of our own government. For years, we’ve been left out in the cold: protesting in the streets, sleeping in our cars or tents, working three part-time jobs just to pay the bills. And today, today, we, all of us, are headed to Congress – St Louis strong!
My message today is to every Black, Brown, immigrant, queer, and trans person, and to every person locked out of opportunities to thrive because of oppressive systems; I’m here to serve you. To every person who knows what it’s like to give a loved one that “just make it home safely baby” talk; I love you.
To every parent facing a choice between putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their head; I’m here to serve you. To every precious child in our failing foster system: I love you.
To every teacher doing the impossible to teach through this pandemic; I’m here to serve you. To every student struggling to the finish line; I love you.
To every differently abled person denied equal access; I love you.
To every person living unhoused on the streets; I love you.
To every family that’s lost someone to gun violence; I love you.
To every person who’s lost a job, or a home, or healthcare, or hope; I love you.
This. Is. OUR. Moment.
Cori Bush delivered an electrifying victory speech. Her victory this year speaks to a potential trajectory of further liberation to come.—Carole Levine