By Thalif Deen
The dramatic increase in women legislators voted into office last November and the historic high of women candidates for the 2020 presidential elections have visibly changed the male-dominated political landscape in the US.
The reasons for the transformation include a growing new political power structure; the rise of gender empowerment; the widespread impact of the #MeToo Movement against sexual abuse; and perhaps, most important of all, a backlash against US President Donald Trump’s steady stream of public insults denigrating women as “bimboes”, “dogs” “fat slobs,” “disgusting animals” and “having low IQs”.
At the November mid-term elections, a record 102 women won seats in the US House of Representatives and 10 won in the Senate, for a total of 112 women — the most ever to serve in the US Congress.
The 2018 election also yielded the two youngest women ever to be elected to the U.S. Congress, both aged 29, as well as five new lesbian, gay, and bisexual parliamentarians (4 of them women).
Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids are the first Native American women elected to Congress while Rashida Tlaib and Ihlan Omar are the first Muslim women to represent their states in the House.
And, at 29, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Abby Finkenauer are the youngest women to serve as US legislators.
Tlaib was born in the US to Palestinian immigrant parents, and Omar, who migrated to the US from a refugee camp in Kenya after fleeing the civil war in Somalia, is the first Somali American to serve in the US Congress.
Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, is the first Native American indigenous woman elected to Congress, alongside Sharice Davids, who is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, a Native American tribe that hails from Wisconsin.
And there is also a historic number of women—six in all — who have formally declared their candidacies for the US Presidential elections scheduled to take place in November 2020.
They include four Senators: Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, along with Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Marianne Williams, an Independent candidate.
Sanam Aderlini, Founder & Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the International Civil Society Action network (ICAN) told IPS “white supremacy” gained a significant boost in the US with Donald Trump’s victory.
His rhetoric and attitude towards women, particularly strong, independent women who challenge him, has always been vitriolic.
“And, of course, the fact that so much of it is directed at women of color is itself indicative of the ugly mix of racism and sexism that is at the core of these movements and ideology,” said Anderlini.
She pointed out that these extremist movements have very rigid interpretations of gender, and so sadly, the lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGBTQI) community is also typically targeted,
“What we are observing is the rise and spread of different forms of identity based extremism. These movements tap into visceral faith or ethno-racial identities. They also all have the subservience of women and the notion of hyper masculinity and patriarchy at their core”
With regard to women in particular, they seek to either co-opt women to support the movement, or coerce them to control them, said Andelini, who is also on the Commonwealth Panel of experts on Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE).
It is most evident, she pointed out, in the obsession with the control over women’s bodies – either in terms of their covering or in terms of their reproductive capacities.
“Because, they want to control women, they are particularly vitriolic towards women’s rights activists and movements, because they challenge the very essence of what extremist movements represent,” she declared.
Mavic Cabrera Balleza, Chief Executive Officer, Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP), told IPS: “I would rather call it “Feminist movements redux” rather than “backlash” because it is inspired by the activism of feminists in previous generations”.
She said the plural in “movements” also represent the diversity and universality of the feminist ideology.
“I also believe that the election of more and unprecedentedly diverse women in US Congress during the 2018 mid-term elections is only partly because of President Trump.”
As you can see, she said, women are not only condemning the sexist and misogynist messages or demanding punishment for sexual abuses, they are also shining the spotlight and demanding response to issues that have been around for many years but have not been adequately acted upon–if at all.
These include migration, gun violence, universal health care, environmental degradation, wars and militarism –among others.
She said the phenomenal #MeToo campaign on sexual abuse against women has given rise to #Time’s Up, #Niunamenos, #NotOneMore, #BalanceTonPorc, #TotalShutDown, and other campaigns.
“My greatest hope is that the results of the 2018 mid-term elections in the US will resonate around the world as different countries are experiencing or are threatened by authoritarianism”.
“I want to see successful non-violent resistance movements across the world within the next decade. I and my colleagues in the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders are actively contributing towards the realization of this vision,” Cabrera Balleza said.
Anderlini told IPS the overlap or mutually beneficial transactional relationship between the white right and the evangelical movement is not a coincidence either.
“We see it in the Trump-Pence duo,” she noted, referring to Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence.
“Precisely because they target and seek to control women, women were the first to mobilize and speak out and resist. This happens in every country I know – from 1979 Iran, when the Islamists sought to impose the hijab and 100,000 women marched in protest, to Washington DC in 2017 and the million women march”.
The mobilization of women into the political sphere is an extension of these developments, Anderlini said.
In many other countries, the pathway to power is blocked for women so they sustain their activism in civil society.
In the US luckily, there are more opportunities. It is also because of years of work by groups such as Emily’s List and others encouraging and supporting women to run for office, she declared
Jody Williams, the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, told IPS: “As a US citizen and an activist promoting women’s rights everywhere, like many, I was pleased with the outcome of the 2018 mid-term elections”.
“In my opinion, Mr. Trump’s bombastic misogyny did influence this outcome, both in the numbers of women who decided to run for office in the various elections across the country, and also in the voting that brought so many women into office,” she declared.
“I think it is also the result of women recognizing the changing power structures – even if too slow for many – and deciding to use their individual power to add momentum to those changes,” Williams added.
In its 2018 annual survey of parliamentarians worldwide, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), based in Switzerland, rightly pointed out last week that the November elections in the US were apparently “historic” where diversity in women’s representation was particularly remarkable, with younger and more ethnically diverse women entering both the Senate and the House of Representatives– and for the first time.
Both the lower house (23.5 per cent of all representatives) and the upper house (25 per cent) included more women than ever before.
Of these, 37 per cent were women of colour, including the first two Muslim women and the first two Native American women.
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- Extremism in the Mainstream: Implications for and Actions by Women (Winter 2015)
- Violence against women and extremism are intrinsically linked: overlooking this puts rights at risk
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- Women in Iran’s Parliament: Opportunities and Challenges