Political Pioneers: Voters Elect Women of Color as Democrats Take House

Lauren Underwood, a registered nurse and health policy expert, is a newcomer to Congress. She captured 52 percent of the vote to represent Illinois’ 14th district. (Photo: Clayton Hauck/ Lauren Underwood For Congress)

WASHINGTON (AP) — What is already the most diverse Congress ever will become even more so after Tuesday’s elections, which broke barriers of race and gender.

For the first time, a pair of Native American congresswomen are headed to the House, in addition to two Muslim congresswomen. Massachusetts and Connecticut will also send black women to Congress as firsts for their states, while Arizona and Tennessee are getting their first female senators.

The high-profile midterm cycle that produced a record number of women contenders and candidates of color means a number of winners will take office as trailblazers. The inclusive midterm victories bode well for future election cycles, said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights for America, a national organization focused on galvanizing black women voters and electing black women as candidates.

“This is going to be a long process to get us to a point of proportionate representation, but tonight is a giant step forward for what leadership can and will eventually look like in this country,” Peeler-Allen said. She added that even women of color who were unsuccessful will inspire a new crop of candidates, similar to the white women encouraged to run after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential election loss.

Political Pioneers: Voters Elect Women of Color as Democrats Take House

Jahana Hayes accepts a leadership award from the National Newspaper Publishers Association during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in September. The 2016 National Teacher of the Year is Connecticut’s first black woman in Congress. (Fierce Photo by Yanick Rice Lamb)

Some of Tuesday’s black female pioneers, like Illinois nurse and Democrat Lauren Underwood and Connecticut teacher and Democrat Jahana Hayes, were first-time candidates. Others, like Massachusetts’ Ayanna Pressley, were political veterans. Most were considered longshots.

Georgia candidate Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, was in a fierce battle to become America’s first black woman governor, while Democrat Andrew Gillum narrowly lost his bid to become the first black governor of Florida.

Half a century ago this week, New York’s Shirley Chisholm was elected the first black woman in Congress, and several of the black women elected Tuesday have said their campaigns were inspired by her example.

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Errin Haines Whack, who has written feature articles for Fierce,  is national reporter on race and ethnicity for the Associated Press. Follow her work on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/emarvelous.


FROM CITY COUNCIL TO CONGRESS: Ayanna Pressley became the first black woman from Massachusetts to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday after defeating a 10-term incumbent in the Democratic primary. “None of us ran to make history,” Pressley told supporters in her acceptance speech. “We ran to make change.” (Top Photo: Ayanna Pressley for Congress)