The other newcomers took open seats: Mazie Hirono (D-HI); Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND); and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI); plus Deb Fischer (R-NE). In January, they will join six incumbents who were reelected: Dianne Feinstein (D-CA); Debbie Stabenow (D-MI); Amy Klobuchar (D-MN); Claire McCaskill (D-MO); Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY); and Maria Cantwell (D-WA). Nine other Senate women, six Democrats and three Republicans, were not up for reelection.
And in the House, at least 77 women will take seats in two months, 57 of them Democrats. In both houses of Congress, that's a record number. Women were also added in several state legislatures (although not enough to beat the 2009 record), the New Hampshire congressional delegation is all women, and so is the governor there. Two new representatives are women who served combat tours in Iraq, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois (a helicopter pilot) and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii (with a field medical unit), and Tammy Baldwin will be the first openly gay person in the Senate. The new House members include six women of color, all Democrats: one African-American; three Asian/Pacific Islander Americans; and two Latinas. In the House will be a record total of 28 women of color (26 Democrats, two Republicans), including 13 African American women, all Democrats, nine Latinas (seven Democrats and two Republicans), and 6 Asian/Pacific Islander Americans, all Democrats.
All of which, of course, makes it tempting to call this the "Year of the Woman." Ann Friedman at New York Magazine warns us off that course:
[...] something didn’t sit quite right as I watched media outlets from Mother Jones to The Washington Post to Salon to WNYC declare 2012 another Year of the Woman. I’m not thrilled to label this “our year” when women are nowhere near achieving parity. The “Year of the Woman” narrative just goes to show that we’re still labeling women’s marginal electoral successes as outliers—more wishful thinking than watershed moment. As Senator Barbara Mikulski put it twenty years ago, “Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We’re not a fad, a fancy, or a year.”Indeed, some people considered 1972 the "year of the woman" when both houses of Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment. That, of course, never got added to the Constitution.
To the contrary—apparently we’re every year. The “Year of the Woman” label has been slapped on every election in which women have made any sort of progress, no matter how minimal. Some observers dubbed 1984 the Year of the Woman when Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to appear on a major-party presidential ticket. There were also some tepid predictions that the 1988 and 1990 elections would be groundbreaking for women. Then came 1992. But, though that election brought a solid group of women to Congress (four of the senators are still serving), the numbers were hardly approaching parity.
Despite the gains this year, the United States, which was way ahead of most Western democracies when Montanan (and Republican) Jeanette Rankin was elected to a single term in the House in 1916, is now well behind. In the five decades after Rankin was elected, just 49 women served in the House or Senate, more than half of them appointed or elected to fill out the terms of dead husbands and then not reelected. It took until 1981 before 20 women held seats in the House at the same time.
The combined percentage of women in the Senate and House come January will be 18 percent. The current average percentage of women in the parliamentary bodies of the 56 countries of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is 23.4 percent. In the Americas, it is 23.8 percent. In the five Nordic countries, it is 42 percent.
What matters, of course, is not numbers but policy. A fourth of Sudan's parliament is women, and they have little to show for it. NARAL points out that when the 113th House of Representatives convenes in two months, 237 anti-choice members will still be in charge of any legislation on reproductive rights. The vast majority of these members are Republicans, a privileged patriarchy that will be shaping the debate if not running the show on a whole range of other issues of importance, to both women and men, from child care to warfare.
One of the longer-serving members of Congress, 12-term Mary T. Norton of New Jersey, was also the first woman Democrat elected, in 1924. A staunch Catholic, she opposed weakening laws against disseminating birth control information, saying people should "control themselves." She also opposed the Equal Rights Amendment first introduced in 1923 because she was afraid it would lead to women not being protected in the industrial workforce.
But her work in favor of the rights of working people can still be felt today in the form of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. As pointed out in the book Women of Congress: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey, written by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio congresswoman who won reelection to her 15th term Tuesday, Norton personally guided that act through committee and onto the House floor for a vote:
The only significant New Deal reform to pass in President Franklin Roosevelt’s second term, the act provided for a 40-hour work week, outlawed child labor, and set a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour. To get the controversial bill out of the Rules Committee, which determined what legislation was to be debated on the floor and which was controlled by “anti-New Deal” conservative Democrats, Norton resorted to a little-used parliamentary procedure known as the discharge petition. She got 218 of her colleagues (half the total House membership, plus one) to sign the petition to bring the bill to a vote. The measure failed to pass, but Norton again circulated a discharge petition and managed to get a revised measure to the floor, which passed. “I’m prouder of getting that bill through the House than anything else I’ve done in my life,” Norton recalled.In these days when Republicans seek to dilute or demolish New Deal and Great Society programs, it would be terrific if leaders among that record number of women in Congress would, like Norton, spur elected Democrats to stop playing defense so much of the time and move ahead with fresh initiatives that improve the lives of working women and men the way those initiatives three-quarters of a century ago have done.