History was made this week on many fronts, one of which was the election of an unprecedented number of women to the 113th US Congress. Notable among these newly elected women are Elizabeth Warren, whose high-profile campaign was a rallying cry for progressives around the country, and Tammy Baldwin, who will become the first openly gay Senator. But given that demographics were an important backstory to the 2012 elections, the history made by women from immigrant communities is also worth noting.
Several Asian American women established new milestones for our nation’s highest legislative body. More than half, seven of 11, of Asian Americans elected to the 113th Congress are women. They will include Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who is shockingly only the second woman of color and the only Asian American woman ever elected to the Senate. In the House, Grace Meng (D) will become New York’s first Asian American Congress member, and Iraq War veteran Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) the first American Samoan elected as a voting member of Congress. They will both join Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a Thai-born, double amputee war hero, also elected on Nov. 6. And among Latinas, Congresswoman-elect Michele Lujan Grisham became the first Latina representative from New Mexico.
On the one hand, these are triumphs that are worth celebrating, especially because they are no longer anomalies, but rather enduring trends. On the other, representation in Congress by women and minorities still falls woefully short of the current population. Asian Americans, for example, are 6% of the population, and should be represented proportionately by 31 Congress members. Currently, only 11 Asian Americans are confirmed to serve in the next Congress. Similarly, Latinos, who constitute 16% of the population, will be represented by only 31 Congress members, nine of whom are women. At 31 members, Latino representation still falls woefully short of the 86 that it should be.
There’s a reason that representation by women and by immigrant communities is linked—neither will happen adequately without intentional efforts by groups like ours, New American Leaders, and others that help prepare women for civic service. Even with the historic number of women in Congress, they will make up only about 18% of that legislative body. What we have seen in 2012 is that this is not a zero-sum game—electing minority women to office can change its gender and racial composition, so our lawmakers look more like the country they represent.
In “Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics,” Jennifer Lawless summarizes research on the impact of women policymakers and finds that women are more responsive to their constituents, secure more in discretionary dollars for their districts and are more likely to vote for legislation that supports reproductive rights. In today’s America, these constituents and districts include 18.9 million immigrant women. From modeling leadership opportunities to our young men and women, to creating policies that reflect the needs of 21st century American families and communities, more minority women in Congress can help to create the economic, social and political conditions that support the increasingly diverse US population.