Women in Congress: The Good News and the Bad

A supporter for Tammy Baldwin and Elizabeth Warren, holds a sign that reads "Women Belong in the House and the Senate" in 2012.
Courtesy of Unite Women.

Ten years after the election that resulted in a doubling of the number of women in Congress, the old record of 90 women was broken on Tuesday. Five newcomers will join 15 returning female senators — including two Jewish women from California  — for an all-time high of 20, and there will be at least 77 women in the House (a few races are still undecided) when the 113th Congress convenes in January.

Here in Massachusetts, Democrats are celebrating the victory of Elizabeth Warren, the first woman from the Bay State to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Three other states will also be sending women to the Senate for the first time: Hawaii, North Dakota, and Wisconsin. Tammy Baldwin from Wisconsin will be the first openly gay person in the Senate, and Mazie Hirono from Hawaii will be the first Asian/Pacific Islander American woman elected to that chamber and the first U.S. Senator born in Japan. She is only the second woman of color to serve in the Senate. (Another Hawaiian, Tulsi Gabbard will be the first Hindu-American in Congress.)

So, Tuesday was a good day for women in American politics, all the more so since two years ago women lost seats in Congress. But gratifying as the numbers are, it’s a sad commentary that we consider it a triumph when 20% of the Senate and an even smaller percentage of the House are women. Is that fair representation for an electorate that is 53% female?

A week ago I heard Anita Hill speak. Twenty-one years after her courageous appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, she expressed her belief in the possibility--and the importance--of “moving the needle.” Looking back to the days when the only way for a woman to serve in Congress was first to become a widow, or to the 1970s, when Bella Abzug was one of fewer than 20 women in the House of Representatives, I realize we have moved the needle quite a bit. At a time like this, an historical perspective definitely helps.

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Great graphic on the Ultraviolet Facebook page recognizing Ì¢‰âÒSeven Reasons Why 2012 Was the Year of the Woman."

How to cite this page

Rothman, Ellen K.. "Women in Congress: The Good News and the Bad." 9 November 2012. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 7, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/women-in-congress-historical-perspective-helps>.

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