106 Women: Midterm Elections, Reflections

By Kara Lessin

Congress now, for the first time ever, might have up to 106 women serving in it. This is historic.

Women won in this election, women were taken seriously in this election, women were seen and heard in this election. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (the only woman in the Senate to serve as a governor – and a three term governor at that – as well) has become the second woman in as many states to beat out Scott Brown. Mia Love is the first Haitian American and black female Republican to be elected to Congress, and she took her seat from, Jim Matheson, who is very white and very male. Maura Healey has taken up Martha Coakley’s mantle as Attorney General of Massachusetts, and is the first openly lesbian attorney general in the United States. Joni Ernst is succeeding Tom Harkin, a man who will have served in the Senate for 30 years when he retires. Saira Blair is an 18-year-old who beat out a 44-year-old male incumbent opponent for a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates with 63 percent of the vote. Cathy Breen won a seat in the Maine state senate – against Cathy Manchester, and Ann McLane Kuster won against Marilinda Garcia in the second New Hampshire congressional district. It’s almost tempting to call it an embarrassment of riches, but for the fact that statistically, it’s not. Because 19.8 percent is not even close to political parity, and historic or not, the potential for 106 women in Congress should be noted, but certainly not celebrated.

Because in some cases women also lost, and lost hard. Neither Wendy Davis nor Leticia Van de Putte were going to win, no matter what. However, their resounding defeat with respective 20.3 point and 17 point margins brought back sickening memories of Davis’ incredible, world-stopping 2013 13-hour filibuster of a bill that would have hugely reduced access to birth control in Texas and Van De Putte’s strong voice asking “At what point must a female senator raise her hand and her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”- and then the special passage of the bill the next day despite the power of the filibuster. Lucy Flores, who was on fire this summer not only with her EMILY’s List endorsement but also with the dynamism of her discussion of her abortion, of her history in a gang and subsequent imprisonment, was slaughtered in the polls – a sad implication for those of us who were thrilled to see a broadening of the narratives available in politics. Women may have lost out in elections, too, as lower-income and marginalized groups within those groups of people affected by voter ID laws in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

There are conversations we have to be having, with greater America, with the hegemonic and ideological powers that be, with the academics who discuss the meanings of representation, with the brave women who are running for office and putting themselves up for the difficulty of gaining party backing, for the double binds and standards, and for the media oversteps.

This past Tuesday, I took a number of silly pictures with Devi Nair at the Institute of Politics Election Results watch party. She was my freshman roommate, is one of my best friends, and is the current president of the Harvard Republican Club. When we left for the night, she came up and hugged me, congratulating me on my work getting Senator Shaheen reelected. There are things that she and I fundamentally disagree about – but respect is not one of them; discussion about differences is not one of them; learning each others’ issues, terms, reasons and limits is not one of them. My wish for the incoming women of Congress, the widening stream of women in state and local office, and all the women poised for 2016, ’18, ’20, and beyond, is for them to have across the aisle relationships like I have had here with my close friend and late-night, mid-Ec 10 problem set debate partner. May they educate each other, infuriate each other, appreciate each other, strive to find other opinions of other amazing women, fight to the bloody end, and go out to lunch after.

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