We owe much to the struggles of women throughout our history, from the first women’s rights gathering in Seneca Falls, to the suffragette movement, to modern feminism. However, even as women in the United States have made incredible strides, gender equality is not a historical concern so much as it is a present one.
The gender pay gap persists; women’s access and right to healthcare remains precarious; and the epidemic of violence against women and sexual assault continues. Women — particularly women of color — are also still underrepresented in government. As of 2017, 105 women hold seats in Congress, comprising 19.6% of the 535 total members.
During this Thanksgiving season, GovLoop is thankful for the many women who are currently breaking barriers to achieve intersectional gender equality. These inspiring women in government have paved the way for future generations of female politicians and public servants:
Though not a household name, Shirley Chisholm is one of the most important political pioneers of the last century and a woman of many firsts. A former community activist and educator from Brooklyn, New York, Chisholm won a House seat in 1968, becoming the first black woman ever to be elected to Congress. She introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation and championed immigrant rights, poverty relief, racial and gender equality, improved access to education, and ending the Vietnam War.
In 1972, Chisholm sought the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency. She faced several assassination attempts, was blocked from televised debates and had to fight her way onto the ballot in 12 states. Though she didn’t expect to win, Chisholm won 10 percent of the total vote and paved the way for future black and female presidential candidates — Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both cited her as an inspiration — and she was awarded a posthumous Medal of Freedom in 2015.
“I ran for the Presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo,” Chisholm wrote. “The next time a woman runs, or a black, or a Jew, or anyone from a group that the country is ‘not ready’ to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start… I ran because someone had to do it first.”
Catherine Cortez Masto
In November 2016, former Nevada attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto was elected as the first Latina senator in U.S. history. Cortez Masto, the granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant, is currently one of only four Latinos in the Senate. She and her sister were the first in their family to graduate from college. In her political career, she has been a champion of equal pay for equal work, and has also advocated for increasing the minimum wage and pushing for paid family leave. But she is most passionate about comprehensive immigration reform, citing her grandfather’s stories of crossing the Rio Grande to immigrate to the United States.
Cortez Masto has regularly emphasized the importance of bringing more women to the table and addressing the lack of diversity in Washington. She also acknowledged the important role she serves as a role model for the next generation: “When [young girls] meet me and they know that I’m the first Latina—for me, that tells me that they’re looking at me saying, ‘Oh my gosh, if she can do it, I can do it too.’ And that’s what I want them to think.”
Pramila Jayapal is a politician and long-time civil rights activist from Washington. She is the first Indian American woman and first person of South Asian descent to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Prior to her political career, Jayapal was a notable champion of immigrants’ rights and a leader in combating Islamophobia. She founded a nonprofit called OneAmerica in Seattle after the September 11 terrorist attacks, which declared Washington a “hate free zone” and successfully sued the Bush Administration to prevent the deportation of over 4,000 Somalis across the country. In 2013, she was recognized by the White House as a “Champion of Change.”
After November 2016, Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth became the second Asian American senator, the first disabled woman to be elected to Congress, the first Thai American senator and the first female senator who has served a combat role. Duckworth has cited her family’s struggles with poverty and reliance on programs including food stamps, free and reduced-price breakfasts at school, and Pell grants as motivation to fight for working families.
Duckworth suffered an injury in 2004 while serving in Iraq as part of the U.S. Army. She was co-piloting a Black Hawk helicopter that was struck by a grenade, and helped land the helicopter despite injuries that resulted in the amputations of both of her legs. For her courage, she was awarded a Purple Heart. Before joining the Senate, Duckworth served in the U.S. House of Representatives and worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Duckworth’s resilience, personal sacrifice and commitment to public service are undoubtedly an inspiration for the next generation of women leaders.
You may recognize Ilhan Omar as one of the 46 women highlighted in Time magazine’s recent “Firsts: Women who are changing the world” project. After civil war broke out in her home country of Somalia in 1991, Omar and her family fled the country and spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya. They later immigrated to the United States, settling in Minneapolis.
Omar worked for the Women Organizing Women Network, an association advocating for women from East Africa to take on civic and political leadership roles. In November 2016, Omar was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives and became the first Somali-American Muslim legislator in the United States. “At some point it became more than about me,” said Omar. “It became about changing the current narrative about women of color who run for office.”
In August 2009, Sonia Sotomayor became the third woman and first Hispanic justice to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Sotomayor grew up in the Bronx to Puerto Rican-born parents, though her father died when she was only 9 years old. She was diagnosed as a child with diabetes and was raised by her single mother in a housing project. Despite the numerous challenges she faced throughout her upbringing, Sotomayor excelled at the top schools in the country and made history. On the bench, is known for asking tough questions of lawyers and delivering fierce, intelligent opinions. Sotomayor’s passion for justice has made her an advocate for the marginalized in society and a role model for women everywhere.
Denise Juneau, a member of the Mandan, Hidasta and Arikara Nation and a descendant of the Blackfeet tribe, served as the Superintendent of Public Instruction of Montana from 2009 to 2017. She was the first Native American woman elected to any statewide executive office in the United States, and was also the first openly gay candidate to hold a statewide position in the state of Montana. Juneau ran in the 2016 congressional election for a House seat, seeking a historic win, but was defeated by the incumbent Republican.
Even as government becomes more diverse at the local, state and federal level, only 25 state legislative seats are currently held by Native American women. Over a dozen Native American men have served in Congress since 1907, but there has never been a Native American woman elected to Congress. Despite Juneau’s loss, her inspiring, hard-fought campaign serves as a reminder that there are still barriers to be broken.
In 1998, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person to be elected to Congress, and her election in 2012 made her the first openly gay woman in the Senate. Throughout her career, Baldwin has advocated for LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, social justice and economic equality. She was co-founder and co-chairwoman of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus and led efforts to advance the Employee Non-Discrimination Act. In addition to advocating for progressive legislation, Baldwin has also inspired other women and members of the LGBTQ community to seek political office.
Earlier this month, 33-year-old Danica Roem made history after winning election to Virginia’s House of Delegates. Roem is the first openly transgender person elected and seated in a state legislature. Throughout her campaign, Roem faced discrimination and attacks regarding her gender identity. Her opponent refused to debate her or even refer to her as a woman. But Roem’s stunning victory demonstrated that the tide is turning toward LGBTQ inclusion. Roem dedicated her win “to every person who’s ever been singled out, who’s ever been stigmatized, who’s ever been the misfit, who’s ever been the kid in the corner, who’s ever needed someone to stand up for them when they didn’t have a voice of their own. This one is for you.”