When Rashida Tlaib went to hear then presidential candidate Donald Trump speak at the Detroit Economic Club in 2016, she intended to make herself heard. Ms. Tlaib, a member of the Michigan state legislature, shouted, “You need to read the U.S. Constitution!” before being dragged away by security.
Her mother, a Palestinian immigrant, was horrified that her daughter had been arrested on live TV. Ms. Tlaib reassured her mother, she later told CNN. “I said, Mom, I got detained, it’s fine. It’s the most American thing I could ever do.”
It is the most American thing, apart from shopping on Black Friday, or running for office. Now, Ms. Tlaib is going to Washington, because she has won Michigan’s 13th Congressional district – part of a historic wave of female candidates elected during the midterms. For the first time, Muslim women will be in the U.S. Congress: The other fresh face is Ilhan Omar, also a former state legislator, and Somali-American who came to the United States as a refugee 20 years ago. Ms. Omar says she is the first refugee, and the first woman to wear a hijab, elected to Congress. And – in a fine example of the current crazypants state of U.S. partisanship – she is most likely the first candidate accused by conspiracy theorists of being a man, and married to her own brother.
But that’s U.S. politics for you. Just when all seems lost, a door opens and lets in a little sliver of light. That door also opened in these midterms and let in at least 108 women, the highest number elected to Congress in the country’s history. As of this writing, with some races still to be settled, 12 women were elected to the Senate, 96 to the House of Representatives, and nine as governors, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University (CAWP). The overwhelming majority of those candidates came from the Democratic Party.
Those candidates were fuelled by a surge of small-donor contributions, and supported by progressive women who turned out at the polls: According to CNN’s exit poll, 59 per cent of women voted Democrat (although that number dropped to 49 per cent among white women), and 67 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted Democrat. Neither time nor demographics are on the Republicans’ side; if the country can just outlast the aging right-wing voter, it might even survive.
The last time such a large cohort of women was elected was in 1992, when representation in Congress nearly doubled. That surge was at least partly spurred by anger, too: Then women were moved to run by fury over the way Anita Hill was treated during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Now the anger is – well, pick a target, because there are so many. The misogynist President. The threat to immigrants. The threat to reproductive health.
Famously, 1992, was hailed as the “year of the woman,” and we’re hearing the same thing now, but we should be careful about that label. It implies that women in politics have a specific sell-by date, like yogurt that’s about to spoil. Women’s year should be every year elections are held. As CAWP’s Kelly Dittmar has written, we should “get rid of this moniker altogether in order to normalize women’s political success instead of characterizing it as an anomaly.”
In suburban Illinois, the same anger that fuelled Ms. Tlaib to run also drove Lauren Underwood, a 32-year-old nurse and a black woman running in an overwhelmingly white congressional district against a four-term Republican incumbent. She had heard that incumbent Randy Hultgren made a public pledge not to gut Obamacare, and then saw him turn around and vote to do exactly that. Now she’s going to Washington and he’s staying home.
Other inspiring wins include the election of the first two Native American women to Congress, Democrats Sharice Davids in Kansas and Deb Haaland in New Mexico. (A third Native American candidate, Republican Yvette Herrell in New Mexico, looks like she’ll win her race, too.)
But there were heartbreaking losses as well, such as Stacey Abrams’ bid in Georgia to become the first black female governor in U.S. history (she has not conceded the race as I write, and legal challenges are possible). On one hand, she had Oprah in her corner; on the other, she was fighting a history of racism, voter suppression, and some seriously sketchy voting technology. If she does lose, I have no doubt that Ms. Abrams will be back. This isn’t the year of the woman, but it may be the century.