Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Meet the women making history at the US Congress

At least 135 female candidates have been voted in to office in 2020, the highest number ever

Published: Nov 9, 2020 03:12:12 PM IST
Updated: Nov 9, 2020 03:28:03 PM IST

Meet the women making history at the US Congress(Clockwise from left) Vandana Slatter; Rashida Tlaib (Rebecca Cook / Reuters); Sarah McBride (Brendan McDermid / Reuters); Ilhan Omar (Eric Miller/ Reuters); Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Andrew Kelly / Reuters); Ayanna Pressley (M. Santiago/Pool via Reuters) and Stephanie Byers (Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images) 

As Kamala Harris is elected the next Vice President of the United States, she becomes the first Black, the first Indian-American and the first woman to serve the office. Along with Harris, female candidates across the country have broken records, as 2020 sees the highest number of women elected into US Congress. 

As of Monday, 135 women, comprising 103 Democrats and 32 Republicans (more than any other election cycle for the party), won in their districts, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Women still make up just about a quarter of the 535 seats in both the House and the Senate.

In total, 48 black women will serve in Congress, out of which 46 are Democrats. So far, the elected female representatives include 11 Latinas, nine LGBTQ+ representatives, six women of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, two Native Americans, and one of Middle Eastern of North African descent, according to news reports.

All four representatives of colour belonging to the progressive “Squad” of Democratic congresswomen won re-election. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, have championed climate action and universal health care, apart from fighting racism and sexism in Capitol Hill.

Forbes India looks at some of these women from diverse backgrounds who have made it to the US House of Representatives:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, known as AOC, is a congresswoman from New York. The 31-year-old was a full-time waitress before she first got elected in 2018, and has since been actively fighting for working-class communities, advocating equal rights and humane immigration policies. Popular for her down-to-earth nature and spirit of taking criticism head-on, AOC is one of the few politicians who has refused to accept funding from business-related political action committees, and has won both her elections with grassroots campaigns.

Ayanna Pressley

Ayanna Pressley won re-election from Massachusetts after she became the first woman to colour to represent the state in November 2018. The 46-year-old lawyer, policy-maker and activist won 86.3 percent votes against independent Roy Owens. She has championed causes related to government workers, civil and women’s rights and mental health.

Cori Bush

The nurse and Black Lives Matter activist became Missouri’s first Black female congresswoman, representing a district that includes the cities of St. Louis and Ferguson. A single mother, Bush has been fighting for justice in her community since 2014. The 44-year-old says, according to her website, "I’m ready to bring the fight from protest to politics." With an 84 percent vote in the state’s 1st Congressional District, she defeated Republican Anthony Rogers and Libertarian Alex Furman. This victory comes after an unsuccessful attempt in 2018 to beat William Lacy Clay Jr who has represented the district since 2001.

Jenifer Rajkumar

Indian-American lawyer Jenifer Rajkumar becomes first South-Asian woman to be elected to New York State assembly. Daughter of immigrants, the 38-year-old Democrat is a professor of political science at the City University of New York (CUNY) and former New York State government official. She began her career by fighting corporate fraud and representing causes of the youth, immigrants and people in vulnerable situations. She was selected for the New York Super Lawyers List in 2015 and 2016, and was recently awarded the Glass Ceiling Award for serving the Queens community.

Ilhan Omar

Ilhan Omar of Minnesota is one of the two Muslim women in Congress. A strong opponent of racism and misogyny in the government since the beginning of her tenure in 2019, she is the first Somali-American member of Congress. The first woman of colour in history to represent Minnesota, the 38-year-old fled Somalia’s civil war with her family when she was eight-years-old, and spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before moving to America in 1991. In the US, she became an experienced public speaker, advocate and policy analyst. Omar has advocated to increase investments in education, secure fair wages for workers, fight to reverse climate change, and humanise the immigration system in America.

Kesha Ram

Kesha Ram is a Democratic representative who is the first woman of colour to be elected to Vermont's Senate. Born to a Jewish-American mother and an Indian father, the 34-year-old encourages equal political representation of different communities and people of colour. She fights for gun safety, affordable education, accessible internet, paid family leave, and social and racial justice.

Padma Kuppu

The Indian-American Democrat is a member of the Michigan House of Representatives from the 41st district who earned re-election this year. According to her website, the 55-year-old moved to the US about 20 years ago, and as a state representative, has introduced several bills and sponsored several resolutions, including one to recognise World Water Day. She is the first Indian immigrant to hold this position in the Michigan legislature.

Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal is a member of the Democratic Party, represents the 7th Congressional district of Washington since 2017. Jayapal moved to Seattle at the age of 16 and has been an American citizen for over 30 years. She is among the very few politicians who refuse to accept money from business-led political action committees, and has run several grassroots campaigns to raise funds. The 55-year-old has fought for affordable housing, and efficient infrastructure and transit. A financial advisor and author, Jayapal is the founder of (pro-immigrant advocacy group) OneAmerica, director of PATH Fund for Technology Transfer (a loan fund that provides capital for social health projects). The causes she has championed include efficient health care, workers’ rights, reproductive rights, making college affordable, propagating LGBTQ+ equality, protecting the environment, and immigration.

Rashida Tlaib

Rashida Tlaib is the first Muslim woman to be elected from Michigan. She is also the first woman of Palestinian descent within the US Congress. The 44-year-old is one of the 14 children born to working-class Palestinian immigrants, and began her political career in 2004. Her main goals as a congresswoman has been to modify existing immigration policies, fight against racism and for climate action. She is an advocate for abortion rights and Medicare For All. Tlaib won a landslide victory against her Republican opponent David Dudenhoefer with 77.9 percent of votes.

Sarah McBride

Democrat Sarah McBride is the highest-ranking openly transgender elected official in the US after winning Delaware's First District. McBride—who has worked former Governor Jack Markell, attorney General Beau Biden, and as White House intern under the Obama administration—has been involved in community advocacy for most of her life.

The former national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign beat her Republican opponent Steven Washington in the state’s First District, with 73.3 percent of votes. After her victory on Tuesday, the 30-year-old tweeted, "I hope tonight shows an LGBTQ kid that our democracy is big enough for them, too.”

Stephanie Byers

Kansas’s first elected official who identifies as a transperson, Stephanie Byers is a retired teacher from Wichita of Indigenous ancestry. In 2018, she was named Educator of the Year by GLSEN, an organisation that creates safe schools for LGBTQ+ youth. Byers beat Republican challenger Cyndi Howertin by 54.4 percent votes. An advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, the congresswoman plans on spending the next couple of months working towards education, Medicaid expansion and ending discrimination in Kansans.

Taylor Small

Taylor Small, who ran under a Democratic and Progressive Party ticket, is the first transperson to be elected from Vermont. The 26-year-old will share the Chittenden 6-7 House seat, which largely covers the town of Winooski, along with Democrat Hal Colston, winning 41 percent votes. Taylor has worked as the director of the health and wellness programme at the Pride Center of Vermont and has advocated mental health and counselling, while promoting support services, local libraries and youth literacy.

Vandana Slatter

Slatter wears is a Canadian-American politician, pharmacist and a scientist. Since 2017, she has been serving as a member of the Washington State House of Representatives from the 48th district, clinching re-election this year. She has worked as a clinical scientist for over 20 years in leading biotech and pharma companies. Some of her public service activities include advocacy for access to medicine, health care, and education. Slatter has also served on the boards of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, the Children’s Institute for Learning Differences, the Overlake Hospital Foundation, and Farmer Frog.

Yvette Herrell

Herrell is a Republican member-elect of the US House, representing New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional district. Her focus has been on job creation, reducing regulations in the mining, energy, and agricultural industries, investing in public education and vocational training, and reducing taxes. With confirmed victories for incumbent representative Deb Haaland and Teresa Leger Fernandez, followed by Herrell's win, New Mexico becomes the first state in history to elect all women of colour to the US House of Representatives.

Compiled by Naini Thaker, Mansvini Kaushik and Aishwarya Naveenan