In addition to witnessing the most women elected to the House of Representatives in history, Tuesday night saw victories for several historic political candidates, including the elections of the first Native American, Somali-American, and Muslim women to Congress, the first woman under 30 to Congress, and the first openly gay state governor.
The past year has seen unprecedented numbers of women, and certainly women of color, running for office. At least 575 women announced their intent to run in House, Senate, and gubernatorial races as early as March; there was a 60 percent increase in female candidates for Congress compared to 2016; and there has been a 75 percent increase in women of color running for office since 2012. For the first time in history, white men comprised the minority of the Democratic party’s class of House candidates.
The numbers remind many of the 1992 “Year of the Woman” following the Anita Hill hearings; this election, of course, came just one month after Justice Brett Kavanaugh, accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, was confirmed to the Supreme Court.
It’s no secret that representation shapes legislation. Political science research has shown that women legislators across the board introduce and pass almost double the bills of their male counterparts, and focus on oft-neglected domestic issues like civil rights, health care, and education, which have critical impact on the standard of living. This is because there are often more barriers to election for women candidates, requiring many women legislators to have more political acumen and will power than their male counterparts, just to be elected in the first place. Additionally, white male Republican legislators are credited with about 75 percent of anti-choice legislation and other policies that are often actively harmful to women.
In other words, with many new women and other diverse lawmakers on the scene, we should expect to see real, meaningful change. Increased diversity tends to have concrete benefits, often for the marginalized groups who gain political representation that they previously lacked. With white men comprising just 32 percent of the US population but occupying 65 percent of all elected offices — including 80 percent of Congress and 75 percent of state legislatures — it was refreshing to see a sharp rebuke to politics as usual on Tuesday night.
Here’s what you need to know about some of the newly elected officials who just made history.
First Native American Congresswoman: Deb Haaland, D-NM-1
In New Mexico’s first district, Democrat Deb Haaland, a registered Pueblo of Laguna tribe member, won her race to become the first Native American Congresswoman in US history, alongside Sharice Davids of Kansas’ third district. Haaland won on a progressive platform of campaign finance reform, affordable health care, protecting and expanding social security, and environmental justice.
Haaland formerly served as chair of the Democratic Party of New Mexico and previously ran to be New Mexico’s governor. Her victory marks a crucial step toward representation that’s long been sorely lacking.
First LGBTQ+ Native American Congresswoman: Sharice Davids, KS-3
In Kansas’ third district, Sharice Davids won her race to become the first Native American woman in Congress alongside Haaland. In addition to being a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Davids is also openly lesbian.
Prior to running for Congress, Davids worked as a lawyer and economic adviser. She often speaks about the impact of being raised by her single mother, who was an Army veteran. Davids won on a progressive platform of tax cuts for the middle class, Medicaid expansion, gun safety, and environmental protection. On the campaign trail, she was constantly exposed to racist and homophobic attack ads by her opponents.
First Somali-American, Muslim Congresswoman: Ilhan Omar, D-MN-5
In Minnesota’s fifth district, Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American member of the Minnesota House of Representatives, won her race to become the first hijab-wearing Muslim, Somali-American Congresswoman in US history. Omar has served in Minnesota’s House since 2016, and ran for Congress on a progressive platform of universal health care, debt-free college, and criminal justice reform.
Omar immigrated to the United States when she was 16 after escaping her war-ravaged home country of Somali. She has spoken in the past about the impact of her childhood in refugee camps.
First Muslim Woman in Congress: Rashida Tlaib, D-MI-13
In Michigan’s 13th district, Rashida Tlaib joins Omar in becoming the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Tlaib, who formerly worked in Michigan’s state legislature and was the first Muslim woman elected to the legislature, will replace former Rep. John Conyers, who resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment earlier this year.
Tlaib’s congressional campaign was widely compared to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s due to its unabashedly progressive platform, which included a $15 minimum wage, labor rights, and Medicare for all.
First Woman Under 30 in Congress: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY-14
Earlier this year, self-identified Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the nation when she ousted a 10-term Democratic incumbent for New York’s 14th Congressional district. On Tuesday night, she won the general election in her district to become the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives at 29 years old.
Ocasio-Cortez, who formerly worked as a bartender and attributed her primary victory to tireless grassroots organizing, won on a platform of universal health care, housing as a human right, immigrant justice, and criminal justice reform.
First Person of Color to Represent Massachusetts in the US House: Ayanna Pressley, D-MA-7
After ousting a 10-term Democratic incumbent in her surprise primary victory, Ayanna Pressley, who also served as the first woman of color on Boston’s city council, was elected to represent Massachusetts’ seventh district. Pressley ran a grassroots campaign without the support of PACs, on a progressive platform of universal health care, fighting for reproductive justice, and criminal justice reform, among other issues.
Prior to her primary race, Pressley told Brit + Co she was inspired to run for office for the first time to “save women and girls,” and was discouraged from running by most of the traditional gatekeepers in her community.
Now, Pressley will serve as the first person of color from Massachusetts in the House of Representatives.
First Latinx Women to Represent Texas in Congress: Veronica Escobar, D-TX-16 and Sylvia Garcia, D-TX-29
Texas elected its first Latinx women ever to represent the state in Congress: Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who will take over former Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke’s El Paso district, and Sylvia Garcia, Both Texas’ 16th and 29th Congressional districts are securely Democratic, but Escobar and Garcia’s victories mark progress for the representation of Latinx women, nonetheless — especially considering Latinx people comprise 40 percent of Texas’ population.
Escobar, a third generation El Pasoan, formerly served as a county judge who protected access to affordable health care. Escobar has also served as county commissioner for El Paso County’s second precinct. Garcia formerly served in the Texas state Senate, and as Houston’s commissioner. Both candidates ran on platforms standing up for immigrants’ rights, veterans’ rights, and affordable health care.
First Woman to Represent Tennessee in the Senate: Marsha Blackburn, R-TN
Tennessee voters elected Republican Marsha Blackburn to be their first woman senator. Despite the historic nature of her victory, Blackburn was a highly controversial Senate candidate due to her deeply anti-LGBTQ+, anti-choice stances and record from her time in the House of Representatives, where she served since 2003.
Despite polling that indicated a competitive race between Blackburn and her Democratic opponent Phil Bredesen, Blackburn won by a substantial margin of almost 11 points.
She joins a Congressional class with more women than ever in US history.
First Openly Gay US Governor: Jared Polis, D-CO
In Colorado, Democrat Jared Polis became the first openly gay man elected governor in the US. Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown identifies as bisexual and was the first openly LGBTQ+ person to be elected governor. Former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey came out as gay after being elected, and stepped down from office in the early 2000s.
Polis, a business owner, former Congress member, and father of two, won on a platform of protecting access to health care, gun control, and criminal justice reform. In 2008, he was the first openly gay man to be elected to Congress.
(Photos by Deb Haaland + Astrid Stawiarz / Getty)