When the new U.S. Congress convenes in Washington on January 3, 2017, Catherine Cortez Masto becomes the first Latina ever to serve in the Senate, representing Nevada. Across the country in California’s Silicon Valley, Savita Vaidhyanathan is Cupertino’s first Indian-American woman mayor.
Hillary Clinton may have lost her bid to be the first female president, but elsewhere in the U.S., women in the 2016 elections made historic inroads at all levels of government: federal, state and local.
“It is impossible to deny the substantial progress women have recently made in government and politics,” says Jennifer L. Lawless, director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute in Washington.
In 2017, a record number of minority women will enter the U.S. Senate, and there are more female state legislators. Meet some of them.
California voters elected to the Senate Kamala Harris, the former attorney general of California and daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica. She is the first Indian American U.S. senator and California’s first black senator.
The Senate also has the greatest number of Asian-American women ever, including Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. Duckworth is a military veteran who lost both of her legs in combat.
U.S. House of Representatives
The 115th Congress includes six new women of color, bringing the number of women of color there to a new high of 34, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Pramila Jayapal, a former state senator in Washington state, is the first Indian-American woman in the House. Jayapal was born in India and came to the U.S. by herself at the age of 16 to attend Georgetown University.
Wyoming has one seat in the U.S. House and its latest occupant has a familiar name. Liz Cheney is the first woman elected to that House seat, previously held by her father, Dick Cheney, who served as vice president to President George W. Bush.
Approximately 1,830 women will serve in the 50 state legislatures in 2017, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Women make up nearly 25 percent of all state legislators nationwide, a slight bump from the previous year.
Among them is Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American Muslim female lawmaker from Minnesota. “This really was a victory for that 8-year-old in that refugee camp,” Omar told National Public Radio. “This was a victory for every person that’s been told they have limits on their dreams,” said Omar, director of policy at Women Organizing Women Network, a group that advocates for immigrants to become engaged citizens and leaders.
Also of note: Yuh-Line Niou is the first Asian-American assemblywoman in the New York State Legislature. Niou was born in Taiwan.
Women make up nearly 20 percent of mayors in cities with population of more than 30,000. One of the newest is Vaidhyanathan, the mayor of Cupertino, the city where Apple Inc. is headquartered, with a population of 60,000.
“I’ve had several congratulatory messages saying that I’m the first woman mayor of Indian origin,” Vaidhyanathan said when she was sworn in as mayor in December 2016.
“Yes, I do take a lot of pride and prestige in that, but I do want to thank the residents of the city of Cupertino that voted me in not looking at ethnicity at all. Thank you for your trust in me, and maybe we did break that silicon ceiling and put a few more cracks in that glass ceiling,” the former secondary school math teacher said.
Elsewhere, Cheyenne, Wyoming’s largest city, with 62,000 people, will likewise have its first woman at the helm with the election of Marian Orr, who owns her own political consulting firm.