The US midterm elections of 2006 may well go down in history as the Year of Democratic Women. The American midterm election was a stunning victory for all women, but especially for women in the Democratic Party. The next session of Congress beginning in January 2007 will see Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat from California, take her seat as the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives, a powerful position that puts her third in line for the presidency should anything happen to the president and vice-president.
Unprecedented numbers of Democratic women will hold office in both houses of Congress as well as in various state offices - ranging from governor to attorneys-general to secretaries of state. Women's successes in these critical elections clearly benefited from a surge in the number of women voting to put Democrats back in power.
"Women voted for change in this election," says Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Centre for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. "The exit polls provide compelling evidence that Democrats would not be in control of the new Congress without strong support from women voters."
In the US House of Representatives, 10 new women were elected - eight of them Democrats - putting the number of Democratic women in the House at 50 (out of 435), the highest level ever. And that number could rise: Five seats are still undecided, as too-close-to-call recounts take place. Another 57 women incumbents were re-elected. When the House convenes in January 2007, at least 70 women will be seated, setting a new record.
In the Senate, the election of Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota brings the number of women in that chamber to a new high of 16 (out of 100). Eleven are Democrats, five Republican. Six incumbents, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, won re-election; eight women were not up for re-election this year.
Pelosi, Speaker of the House-elect, is viewed as a formidable politician. The mother of five and grandmother of five, she began her political career in 1987 when she was first elected to the House of Representatives. In 2002, her colleagues voted her as Democratic Leader of the House, thus becoming the first woman in American history to lead a major party in the US Congress. Pelosi has fought for improved education, healthcare, worker's rights and environmental protection. She helped to defeat repeated attempts by the Republican administration to reduce funding for international family planning programs and she has been an outspoken advocate for people living with HIV/AIDS.
The Democratic win, she says, was "a great victory for the American people. [They] voted for a new direction to restore civility and bipartisanship in Washington, DC. [They] voted to restore integrity and honesty in Washington. And [we] intend to lead the most honest, most open, most ethical Congress in history." In addition to concerns about the lack of ethics on Capitol Hill, voters clearly rejected the republican administration's continuing war in Iraq. Other issues worrying Americans include the high cost of health care, a weakening educational system and environmental degradation.
Many women elected to office reflect Pelosi's pledge and share her political energy. Senator-elect Claire McCaskill, a lawyer and single mother for many years, was the first female prosecutor in Jackson County, Missouri. She served as Missouri State Auditor before winning this election. Kirstin Gillibrand, who will join the House of Representatives from New York, is a pro-choice attorney who ran on a "people-centred platform" aimed at protecting Social Security, cutting taxes for working families, and passing tough ethics and lobbying reforms.
Victoria Wulsin (Democrat from Ohio), one of the women awaiting the outcome of a recount, is a physician, mother of four sons, and a PhD in public health. She has worked with labor unions to ensure workplace safety and has traveled worldwide to promote women's health. She ran against another woman, Republican Jean Schmidt, notorious for calling one of her House colleagues, a respected war hero, "a coward" because he called for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Five other contests pitted Republican and Democratic women against each other in this year's election - a sign that enough women ran for office to make this possible.
Groups like EMILY'S List - a political network that helps elect pro-choice Democratic women candidates - and the National Women's Political Caucus are convinced that having a critical mass of women in office will make a difference in policy. Women, they say, emphasize and understand women's issues and will bring a new perspective to debates.
"Many issues that women address are important to all, but often they are led by women," Representative Melissa Bean told the Chicago Daily Herald in 2005. "Education, environment and health care tend to be championed by women in government because they are more intimately involved in these issues."
Adds Ramona Oliver of EMILY'S List, "Women legislate differently. In order to accomplish their ambitious goals, women are more likely to work and negotiate with other policymakers and to find common ground with their colleagues. The public is often frustrated by the legislative deadlock that partisanship creates, and women, who are viewed as more conciliatory, can help transform the political process."
One of EMILY'S List's priorities is getting women elected to state office so that they are "constantly getting women into the pipeline" for higher office. "It's not only about winning today, it's about building for tomorrow," says Oliver. "We need to increase the number of women who have a place at the table."