Despite Claims of Progress, U.S. Lags Way Behind Proportional Representation

posted in: Policy Analysis | 1

“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”


In the weeks since the midterm elections in the United States, as the dust begins to settle from whirlwind counting (and recounting), numerous media outlets have reported on the “The Night of the Woman” or “The Year of the Woman”. Many are asking, has the U.S. finally jumped forward in terms of gender equality in the federal government? With this so-called “pink wave”, some important glass ceilings were broken in a Congress that has historically been dominated by white men. A year after the #MeToo movement and the Future is Female campaign, progress can be seen in the skyrocketing number of women running for office.

While the backgrounds of women recently elected is energizing, the disparity of gender prevails. Women have made gains in Congress in all but two federal elections between 1981 and 2018. This means the headline “Record Number of Women Elected to U.S. Congress” can be applied to 17 out of the last 19 elections, with gains in most years comprising less than 1% of the entire legislative body, compared to the 2% gain achieved this election cycle. The 116th United States Congress taking the oath in January will still be a long way from bridging the gender gap in Congress.

Currently, the United States is ranked 104th globally in the percentage of women serving in the legislature [1]. Women comprise 23% of the Senate and only 19.6% of the House of Representatives. The U.S. ranks 90 spots behind France and lower than Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, three nations amongst the top 10 of highest gender inequality in the world [2]. While the sheer number of women elected is not a cause for over-joyous celebration, within this sect there is an impressive coalition of capable women representing different backgrounds breaking glass ceilings in their home states and the nation.

Here are some standouts from the list of women heading to Washington D.C. for the 116th Congress:


Ilhan Omar, first refugee Congressperson and first Muslim congresswoman



Democrat Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American representing Minnesota, will be the first refugee elected to Congress, and along with fellow newcomer Rashida Tlaib, will be the first female Muslim congresswoman. Before this election, she spent four years as a state legislator in Minnesota, and she supports a progressive agenda, including raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and subsidizing higher education costs for low-income students.

Her election serves as a reminder of how outdated Congressional rules can be. Omar will take on the 181-year-old rule that states, “no Member is to come into the House with his head covered, nor to remove from one place to another with his hat on, nor is to put on his hat in coming in or removing, until he be set down in his place.” She is challenging this rule on account of her Islamic faith, as it means she would have to remove her headscarf if she were to address the House of Representatives.


Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, first Native American congresswomen


DebBorn in Kansas and raised by a single mother Army veteran, Sharice Davids holds a law degree and is a former MMA fighter. Davids has lived and worked with Native American tribes to create economic and community development programs and is a nationally recognized expert in the field. She will represent Kansas as a Democrat.


Deb Haaland has previously chaired New Mexico’s Democratic Party, becoming the first Native American woman in her state to chair a political party. As a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, she shares the title of first Native American woman elected to Congress. She supports Medicare for All, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and has publicly called for the impeachment of President Trump.


Abby Finkenauer, the first congresswoman from Iowa

Abby Finkenauer

Abby Finkenauer, a Democrat, unseated Iowa Republican incumbent Rod Blum in a district won by both Obama and Trump. At 29, she will be the second youngest congresswoman elected to the House. She is a two-term Democratic state representative who has made student debt one of her top priorities, along with protecting healthcare, creating jobs and protecting labor unions







Jahana Hayes and Ayana Pressley, the first black congresswomen from Connecticut and Massachusetts


AyanaJahana Hayes (on the left) was the subject of great pride for my home state of Connecticut when she won the 2016 National Teacher of the Year Award, and the video of her receiving the honor from President Obama went viral as Hayes was brimming with genuine excitement. Her campaign highlighted her difficult upbringing and experience as a leader in her community. Hayes, a Democrat, supports Medicare for All and has proposed stricter gun laws following the failure of the federal government to act in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which took place in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. A first-time political candidate, Hayes will be the first African American, regardless of gender, to represent Connecticut.

After becoming the first black woman elected to Boston’s city council, Ayana Pressley (on the right) defeated 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano to become the first African American to represent Massachusetts in the House of Representatives. Pressley, a Democrat, supports Medicare for All, abolishing ICE, and has called for the impeachment of President Trump.

Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia, the first Latina congresswomen from Texas



Though Latinos comprise more than 30% of the population of Texas, Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia, both Democrats, will serve as the first Latinas to represent the state. Escobar won the both her primary and general election races handily, focusing on immigration reform, expanding the economy, and protecting the environment. She previously served as a county judge.


Sylvia Garcia served as state senator for five years and is primarily focused on expanding healthcare, reforming immigration laws, and helping working families find stable jobs. She is a strong advocate for women, especially as it relates to access to quality and expansive healthcare in a state with very strict abortion laws and limited access to abortion clinics. Garcia holds a law degree and is of Mexican descent.



These are only a handful of the impressive Congresswomen-elect from the November election that covered several “firsts” in the history of Congress. Since 2016, numerous organizations have been created in order to facilitate, train, and support women thinking of running for local, state, or federal office. These organizations are largely Democratic and can explain the disparity of the 539 women who ran for the Senate, House, or Governorship, only 25% were Republican women. Although progress towards proportional representation continues to be excruciatingly slow, it is refreshing see a portion of the new Congress look more like the country it represents.




Follow Ariana Barrenechea:

Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She most recently interned at Open Development Cambodia in Phnom Penh, where she was responsible for incorporating Information and Communication Technologies to advance specific Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN in the context of Cambodia. She is currently the editor of The Bulletin."

  1. Alisha

    Such a well written and informative article. Captured and kept my interest throughout its entirety. Please continue to keep me in the loop! #pinkwave