The recent US congressional midterm elections were a resounding success when it came to electing candidates better representing the country’s remarkable diversity based on gender, race, class, sexuality, and religion. Despite the very real problems of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and outright lying by the Republican party (part of their reactionary strategy to respond to the country becoming browner and generationally less conservative), for the first time in US history, over 100 women were elected to Congress. What’s more, over 100 LGBTQ candidates were elected in a “rainbow wave” — including Colorado’s Jared Polis, the first known gay male US governor — after a rainbow appeared over the Capitol at sunset on election night.
For many female candidates of color, the night was truly historic. More than 500 years after Europeans began their invasion of North America, two Indigenous women, Sharice Davids of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Kansas and Deb Haaland of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe in New Mexico, will finally head to Congress in January. Davids is also the first known member of the LGBTQ community to represent Kansas in Congress and the first Indigenous lesbian congresswoman.
Meanwhile, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, of Michigan and Minnesota, became the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Omar, who came to the US as a refugee, is also the first Somali-American congresswoman. Ayanna Pressley became Massachusetts’ first Black woman elected to Congress, and Jahana Hayes is likewise the first Black woman elected to represent Connecticut. In Texas, Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia became the first Latinas elected to the House. And Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
The platforms these candidates ran on appealed to visions for hope, prosperity, and equitable treatment for all people, themes that clearly resonated with voters across the US. From abolishing ICE to instituting single-payer health care and protecting affordable housing, these congresswomen-to-be offer a range of policy proposals to boldly advocate for the communities under attack by Republicans and abandoned by less progressive Democrats. While their admittance to Congress is relatively new, their leadership in movements for social justice is quite the opposite, extending back to the Black, Chicana, Indigenous, and Asian civil rights movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, organized labor movements, and the 19th-century abolitionist movement.
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Women of color have been such powerful figures in these movements because they understand, intimately, what struggle, survival, resilience, and triumph look like in the face of institutionalized oppression. Based on their experiences with racism, sexism, and disproportionate economic inequality, as well as other forms of societal harm, they — similarly to our mission here at The Body Is Not An Apology — know at every level why it’s so important to lift up the most vulnerable among us. As Black socialist feminist group The Combahee River Collective stated back in 1977, “If black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
Right-wing critics have railed against the importance of such ideas, and the power of these historic elections, by derisively dismissing them as “identity politics” that promote “division.” However, most people who are marginalized understand that often, it takes being subjected to oppression to fully understand the mechanisms and stakes of power and inequality. Conservative critics of so-called identity politics also fail to be honest about the fact that appealing to white working-class voters, as Republicans do, is also “identity politics.” Having elected officials mirror the diversity of experiences and circumstances of their constituents is something sorely needed when Congress is disproportionately white, male, Christian, and, on average, individual members are 12 times as wealthy as the average US household.
Ocasio-Cortez, in contrast, explained recently that she can’t afford to rent an apartment in D.C. until her new Congressional salary kicks in. “Many members of Congress were born into wealth, or they grew up around it,” she told magazine Bon Appetit. “How can you legislate a better life for working people if you’ve never been a working person? Try living with the anxiety of not having health insurance for three years when your tooth starts to hurt. It’s this existential dread. I have that perspective. I feel like I understand what’s happening electorally because I have experienced it myself.”
What the incredible surge of wins for women of color in the House tells us is that they are the future of progressive leadership. Black female voters already know this, as they’re consistently the most progressive group of voters in the US. While Republicans will still control the Senate in January, and by an even bigger margin than they did before the midterms, progressive women of color will be on the front lines as a sorely-needed check on Trump’s ongoing abuse of power. These congresswomen’s ideas and energy will continue driving the forward momentum of the Democratic party, illustrating what the Democrats could be if the more establishment leaders got out of their own white- and wealth-dominated way. As such, it’s long overdue that these ideas be listened to by those with the most entrenched power in their party.
It only makes sense for the Democrats to elect a Speaker of the House who aligns with this progressive vision of the future. When current House Minority Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as part of her speech immediately after the Democrats’ House victory, emphasized bipartisanship, many progressives were dismayed by her approach given the GOP’s alarming alignment with outright neo-Nazis and white supremacists. It’s time to elevate the Democratic leadership of those most willing to call out the Trump regime’s naked abuse of power — including by seriously putting impeachment on the table — in order to save the wounded and flailing democracy known as the US.
As Pressley said at her Boston celebration party, “When it comes to women of color candidates, folks don’t just talk about a glass ceiling; what they describe is a concrete one. But do you know what breaks through concrete? Seismic shifts.”
[Featured Image: A photo of Isra Hirsi holding a white megaphone. They are wearing a blue jacket and behind them is a large stone gray wall. Source: Fibonacci Blue]