Guest columnist Mary Olberding: Year of the woman, part 2

  • Participants gather in Freedom Plaza before marching at the Third Annual Women’s March in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. TNS/Darryl Smith

Published: 1/28/2019 8:43:39 AM

Around this time last year, there was much excitement and speculation wondering if more women would run for public office in response to extremist views held by Trump’s administration. Would it truly be a year of the woman with unprecedented numbers running — and winning? Turned out that in 2018, the answer was a resounding YES!

The 116th Congress was sworn in on Jan. 3, 2019 with 102 female U.S. representatives, four non-voting House delegates (from Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa) and 25 senators; the highest number of women ever to be elected. Included among them are those who identify as Native American, Filipino-American, LGBTQ, military veteran, Muslim and Hindu. Never before has there been such diversity among the ranks of Congress.

But before we pop the champagne corks, note that even at its highest levels, representation by women in this Congress is just below 25 percent. According to the Rutgers Center for Women and Politics, in 2018, women of color made up only 7.3 percent of all of Congress; a gap too large to bridge in one election cycle.

So why am I still waiting with champagne bottle in hand?

We are not yet through January 2019, and for the first time in our history; four women have declared their intention to run for president in 2020. This is stunning progress. Two years after Hillary Clinton’s historic run (and loss) for the presidency, these four women, including our own Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are looking to break the highest, hardest glass ceiling in our country. Even in Clinton’s historic foray, she was the lone female contender. And though she was a uniquely qualified candidate, the question of whether the country was ready for a woman to be president did not get a resounding “yes.”

Though many experienced, high-profile politicians seek a greater opportunity to serve their country as president, until now, it has not been done by multiple women who run all at once.

In 1964, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), the first woman to serve in both Houses of Congress, was the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency by a major political party. At the time, she hoped to counter the extremist views of Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona. She said of her run, “When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.” 

And fully 100 years after Victoria Woodhull was the first female to run in the Equal Rights Party, in 1972, Shirley Chisholm, D-New York, the first African-American woman ever elected to Congress, ran for president to “show that it can be done.” More pointedly, she ran as a counterweight to the extremism of avowed segregationist, Gov. George Wallace, D-Alabama.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s campaign frequently invoked the example of Shirley Chisholm as her hero. With her slogan “change can’t wait,” Pressley was elected in 2018 as the first African-American woman to represent the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in Congress. Already a proven change agent, Pressley was the first woman of color ever elected to the Boston City Council. Following her example, five more women of color were elected to the council in subsequent years.

In January, when Ayanna joined the other 101 women in the House of Representatives, she was given the office once occupied by Rep. Shirley Chisholm.

Though Chisolm’s quixotic run was not taken seriously at the time, her example was followed by the likes of Jesse Jackson, Carol Moseley Braun and Elizabeth Dole. Each entered the presidential fray with little or no expectation of winning.

Even with greater numbers of women winning and serving, running for any office is still groundbreaking, and each race should be understood for the pioneering route each woman must take. Two years away from the next presidential election, let us not diminish their chance of success or undermine their effort. This hampers all women leaders from making progress.

Shirley Chisholm used to say, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, bring your own chair.” Thanks to the many pioneers who ran for president before, this year, there are already four extra chairs. 

We still don’t know the answer to the question of whether our country is ready for a woman to be president. 

But I am hoping in 2020 it might be time to pop that champagne, letting the cork fly so high it breaks that glass ceiling.

Mary Olberding is the elected Register of Deeds for Hampshire County. She also sits on the board of Emerge Massachusetts, an organization that trains Democratic women to run for office. 

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