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A Milestone We Can All Celebrate
At home, my young daughters rule the roost. They are strong-willed (so strong-willed) and seem undaunted by any challenge. Like many parents, I’ve told my children they could be or do anything they want. Sadly, for much of our nation’s history that’s been an empty promise for women, particularly in our democratic institutions.
American women weren’t given the right to vote nationally until 1920. Moreover, while the first female was elected to Congress in 1916, the majority of all women to serve in the House of Representatives were only elected in the past two decades. If women in our democracy believe there are barriers to their participation, how can they be satisfied with the returns?
That’s why the swearing in of the 116th Congress was a great day for my daughters. A record-breaking 127 women, both Democrats and Republicans, now serve in our legislative branch: 102 in the House of Representatives and 25 in the Senate. It’s also noteworthy that an unprecedented 43 women of color entered Congress; I’ll get to why that’s more than just a nice milestone momentarily.
Last summer, my colleague Farhat Popal wrote an insightful piece on men and women’s differing views of our democracy. Drawing from the Democracy Project’s findings, she observed, “There is a clear divide between men and women’s perceptions of equal rights at home, and between men and women’s perceptions of the health of our own democracy…. These results matter because they signal a severe disconnection between men and women, and among groups of women, regarding the extent to which problems related to unequal rights exist in America.”
More concerning were her observations on how minority women had less faith in democratic governance. Only 38 percent said they were satisfied with democracy. And only a third believed a democratic system gave them the best opportunities to achieve prosperity; that number didn’t improve much with women overall at 45 percent.
Why wouldn’t women be dissatisfied?
Looking at our country’s leadership alone, it’s an ocean of male, Caucasian faces. To be clear, there is nothing wrong or bad with having white men in Congress – but speaking as one, we’re well represented. If I were a female, minority or otherwise, I’d wonder where my advocates are in the U.S. Congress. And women agree.
Prior to the elections in November 2018, more than two-thirds of women nationally said they welcomed more females running for Congress, while nearly half believed Congress would be better at solving the country’s problems if more women were elected. Isn’t it natural to be skeptical of a system where there’s a gap between elected leaders and the people they represent? That chasm probably widens when many of those same officials don’t have a shared understanding of the challenges faced by people of color in the United States today. It strikes me as a modern day “taxation without representation” sentiment.
The historically diverse women of the 116th U.S. Congress represent an opportunity for marginalized constituents to feel that their democracy is more accessible, even if it’s only having someone that looks like them in Congress. That’s a necessary first step and hopefully it inspires deeper, more consistent civic engagement from our country’s marginalized communities.
Beyond their constituencies, I hope this dynamic group elevates our nation’s politics and works to unite all Americans. They can start by better representing the needs of the electorate, using civil political discourse based on ideas; not personal enmity, and engaging with opponents in the spirit of compromise to solve our country’s challenges. In doing so, they can exemplify how democracy is intended to create opportunity for all Americans and reinvigorate faith in our system of government. Show this country that a win for women is truly a win for democracy.
Christopher Walsh serves as Senior Program Manager for the Human Freedom and Women's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. In this role, Christopher manages communications, evaluation, and public policy research projects that advance freedom and democracy in the world. He also develops and implements efforts to make the Bush Institute a welcoming place for today’s generation of dissidents and democracy advocates, overseeing visits for training, inspiration, and insight.
Prior to joining the Bush Institute, Christopher worked with the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C. As IRI’s program officer for Central and Eastern Europe, he coordinated political party building and civic advocacy programs in the Balkans and Turkey.
A native of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Christopher is a graduate of American University with a B.A. in International Studies. He currently lives in Dallas with his wife and three young children.Full Bio
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