‘It’s a sea change:’ CIA agent, nuclear engineer, flight attendant among the record number of women

November 9, 2018

Washington Post: ‘It’s a sea change:’ CIA agent, nuclear engineer, flight attendant among the record number of women headed to Congress

By Mary Jordan

There’s a nuclear engineer and a former flight attendant, a nurse and a former agent with the CIA. Many are mothers who work full time, including a former health-care executive from suburban Minnesota who is openly gay.

A record number of women were elected to Congress this week, powering the Democratic takeover of the House. But more than the number, the lasting significance of 2018 may be that so many women did not climb conventional ladders to get to Capitol Hill.

While some did hold steppingstone political offices, many others took nontraditional paths to power, suggesting the need for female candidates to pay their dues in party politics may have gone the way of pantsuits and pearls.

“It’s a sea change,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, the Democratic-leaning group that supports women in politics. The varied backstories and biographies of the Class of 2018 will encourage even more women to run for office, she said, an impact that will reverberate “in the next decade or decades.”

Jody Rushton, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, agreed. “It’s a much wider pipeline now,” she said.

Some races have yet to be called. But as of Friday, more than 100 women had been declared winners in the 435 House races — nearly three dozen more than are serving in the current Congress. Nearly all the newcomers are Democrats. The number of Republican women will decline when the new Congress is seated in January, potentially dropping to as few as 13.

Although the makeup of the House will remain overwhelmingly male, the three dozen women newly elected Tuesday easily surpass the 24 female newcomers elected in 1992, the last “Year of the Woman,” at the end of the George H.W. Bush administration.

But while only about 10 percent of the House was female after the 1992 election, the Congress seated in January will be nearly a quarter female.

When television cameras pan the chamber during the next State of the Union address, the sea of men in dark suits and ties will be broken up by more female lawmakers, including Ilhan Omar, a Somali refu­gee elected Tuesday from central Minneapolis who will be the first member of Congress to wear a hijab.

There also will be many more women of color, including Jahana Hayes, the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, who on Tuesday became Connecticut’s first black representative.

The political environment in the wake of the #MeToo movement has “opened up opportunities for different kinds of women to excel,” said Joel Benenson, a Democratic strategist who worked for President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Also among the newcomers will be Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA agent who defeated Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Spanberger is a mother who started a Girl Scout troop as well as an intelligence officer who speaks four languages and once recruited spies. She said voters in her Central Virginia district appreciate candidates who don’t fit the standard mold of a politician.

“We are breaking up the typical,” Spanberger said. “You can tell a child they can be anything they want, but until they see a broad spectrum of the country — someone who looks like them — they feel one step apart.”

Spanberger said she would work to make health care more affordable and to heal the nation’s political divisions. “What motivated me to run was how divisive the political rhetoric had become,” she said.

It was a common message among other Democratic women who knocked off Republican incumbents, including another CIA veteran, former Middle East analyst Elissa Slotkin. Slotkin unseated Rep. Mike Bishop in a central-Michigan district that President Trump won easily in 2016.

“People can disagree and still respect each other,” Slotkin said.

In addition to driving the Democratic takeover of the House, female candidates also claimed four governorships for Democrats, flipping the top office in Michigan, Kansas, Maine and New Mexico.

Republican women won gubernatorial races in Alabama, Iowa and South Dakota and posted a few other milestones. Rep. Marsha Blackburn will move from the House to the Senate, becoming the first female senator from Tennessee. And Young Kim, who had served in the California statehouse, appeared headed for a win in a close House contest and on the threshold of becoming the first Korean American woman in Congress.

Rushton said Republicans are actively recruiting and training women for office. There is value, she said, in “step by step” advancement. She said droves of Democratic women with zero political background ran for office this year and many failed because voters wanted people with some experience.

But many Democratic women won, buoyed by anger and frustration among female voters over the country’s direction under Trump.

In California, Katie Hill, who ran a nonprofit group that provides services for the homeless, defeated a Republican incumbent, Rep. Steve Knight, in the San Fernando Valley.

In Georgia, former flight attendant Lucy McBath also beat an incumbent, Rep. Karen Handel (R). McBath, whose 17-year-old son was fatally shot by a white man who complained he was playing music too loudly, ran as a gun-control advocate.

And in Massachusetts, Ayanna Pressley became the first black woman elected to Congress from that state, beating Rep. Michael E. Capuano, a 10-term incumbent.

“None of us ran to make history. We ran to make change . . . and change is on the way,” Pressley told her supporters on election night.

“Can a congresswoman wear her hair in braids? Rock a black leather jacket?” Pressley asked. And the crowd roared.