Text by Kate Schatz and papercut portraits by Miriam Klein Stahl
"I will promise you this, I will be one hell of a check and balance on him." —Nevada senator Catherine Cortez Masto, on Donald Trump
November 8, 2016, was a dark day for, well, pretty much everything. We have a lot to mourn, and much work to do, but we also have good, progressive things to celebrate. On January 20, 2017, the number of women of color in the US Congress will quadruple, going from one to four. Of the eight women newly elected to the House, five are women of color. Altogether, there will be 38 women of color (35 Democrats, 3 GOP) representing the United States in Congress. While it is still not enough (in 2016, women make up just over half of the US population, but just under 20 percent of Congress), and while they will be up against tremendous odds, we celebrate their victories. These are women whose backs we all need to have.
Kamala Harris continues California's recent legacy of female senators: she joins Senator Diane Feinstein and takes the seat that Barbara Boxer has held for 23 years (additionally, her opponent was Representative Loretta Sanchez, a prominent Latina politician). As a biracial woman, Harris makes history on several fronts: she's California's first African-American senator and first Asian-American senator, and America's first-ever Indian-American senator. Harris was born in Oakland to immigrant parents: her father came from Jamaica, and her mother came from India. After graduating from law school, she rose up through the ranks of public law, serving as San Francisco's district attorney from 2003 to 2011 and then becoming the state attorney general in 2010. Harris is seen as one of the Democratic Party's biggest rising stars, and her name was bandied around DC as a potential Supreme Court nominee. While the chances of that occurring in the next four years are nil, don't be surprised to see more of her on the national stage.
Catherine Cortez Masto
Catherine Cortez Masto, the granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant and the first in her family to attend college, will be the first Latina in the US Senate and Nevada's first female senator. She will fill the seat vacated by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, and she defeated Republican Joe Heck, whose campaign was fueled by immense out-of-state funding, including major donations by the Koch brothers. A heavy turnout among Latino voters likely put her, and Hillary Clinton, over the top, turning Nevada an unusual and lovely shade of blue. As attorney general of Nevada, Cortez Masto worked to combat some of the state's most pressing problems: sex trafficking, home foreclosures, and methamphetamine manufacturing. She has promised to champion a minimum-wage increase and paid family leave, but her biggest cause is compassionate and comprehensive immigration reform.
Tammy Duckworth is Illinois's newest Senator, and she is many "firsts" — the first Thai woman in the Senate; the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate in Illinois; the first disabled female Army veteran elected to Congress. And she's the second female senator from Illinois —the first since Carol Moseley Braun. As a Blackhawk helicopter pilot for the Illinois National Guard, she was one of the first women to fly in combat missions; in 2004 she was shot down by an RPG in Iraq and lost both of her legs. After a yearlong recovery, she ran for Congress in 2006 and lost — but clearly, this is not a woman who gives up. She ran the VA in Illinois, and then Obama appointed her assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs in 2009, where she established the first 24-hour suicide hotline for vets. She ran for the House again in 2012, and this time she won. Oh, and she's also finished the Chicago Marathon four times, using a hand-cranked bike to complete the 26-mile trek.
Pramila Jayapal will represent Washington State's 7th Congressional District, which includes Seattle and a number of its most left-leaning suburbs — it is, in fact, one of the bluest districts on the West Coast, after the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Jayapal is a longtime organizer and Bernie-endorsed progressive who immigrated to the US from India at age sixteen. Several days after the 9/11 attacks, Jayapal founded Hate-Free Zone, which was later renamed OneAmerica and which grew into one of the largest immigrant-advocacy groups in Washington State. In 2014 she ran successfully for state Senate, and she has represented one of the most racially and economically diverse districts in the country. Gun control, economic equality, community-police relations, health care, and civic engagement of low-income and immigrant communities are some of her central issues.
Lisa Blunt Rochester
Tiny Delaware has one seat in the House of Representatives, and for the first time ever, it will be held by a black woman. Lisa Blunt Rochester is a mother of two who has worked for the state of Delaware for many years, as a caseworker for a congressman, as the first African-American female secretary of Labor, and then as the state personnel director — where she was commissioned to investigate the Delaware State Police for racial and gender discrimination. She also served as CEO of a public-policy think tank focused on the empowerment of people of color. Gun violence, equal pay, and debt-free college tuition top her agenda, and she's also committed to job and economic growth.
Ilhan Omar won a spot in the Minnesota State Legislature in 2016. While that's not a national office, Omar's victory is significant for a number of reasons. She is the first Somali-American ever appointed as a US lawmaker. Also: Omar is a Muslim, a mother of three, and a refugee — she spent four years of her childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp after fleeing the war in Somalia with her parents and six siblings. When she came to Minnesota, she spoke no English. As the executive director of the Minneapolis-based group Women Organizing Women, Omar is a leading advocate for building community leadership among first- and second-generation immigrants. On Tuesday, November 8, a Muslim immigrant woman won House District 60B in Southeast Minneapolis with 80 percent of the vote.