This article originally appears in the Winter 2021 issue of Ms. Become a member today to read more reporting like this in print and through our app.
In 2018, then-Georgia state Sen. Nikema Williams was arrested inside the Capitol in Atlanta for participating in a peaceful protest demanding a fair count of absentee and provisional ballots in the contested gubernatorial race between Stacey Abrams and Brian P. Kemp.
Despite a Georgia law prohibiting the arrest of legislators during a General Assembly session except in cases of treason, felonies or breach of the peace, Williams was taken with her wrists in zip ties to Fulton County Jail, strip-searched and held for hours. (Charges were dropped in 2019.)
In early January, Williams was sworn in to the U.S. House of Representatives, having won the November election in Georgia’s 5th Congressional District with 85 percent of the vote. She now occupies the seat held for 33 years by the country’s preeminent champion of voting rights, the late Rep. John Lewis.
Williams joins eight other new Democratic women in the 117th Congress. Two represent a noteworthy shift within the Democratic caucus: Running bold progressive campaigns, Reps. Cori Bush (Missouri) and Marie Newman (Illinois) defeated male incumbents in their Democratic primary races.
Four are women of color. Williams, the first Black woman to serve as Georgia state Democratic party chair, and Bush, a nurse and Black Lives Matter activist, are the first African American women to represent their majority Black districts. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, the former mayor of Tacoma, Wash., is the first Black person elected to Congress from her state, as well as one of the first three congresswomen of Korean American descent. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (New Mexico) was elected by her new colleagues to leadership in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
All five of these congresswomen, as well as Rep. Sara Jacobs (California), won election in solid blue districts.
In the only House pickups for the Democratic party in 2020, three women flipped seats in the South from red to blue. In North Carolina, Reps. Kathy Manning and Deborah Ross were elected in new Democratic-majority districts created by a court-ordered redistricting that shifted racially gerrymandered GOP-majority districts. And in Georgia, Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux won in a suburban Atlanta district.
“When people think of ‘suburban women,’ they often default to thinking of white women,” Bourdeaux told Ms. “In my district, that’s certainly not the case. Georgia’s 7th Congressional District is one of the most diverse in the nation.”
One-quarter of the district’s residents are immigrants, and 2020 saw record-breaking voter turnout from the Asian American, Black and Latinx communities. Bourdeaux built her campaign around these demographic realities, conducting phone banks and/or mailing campaign literature in Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and Vietnamese, as well as in Spanish.
The nine new congresswomen join 80 veteran Democratic women in Congress, tying 2018’s record high.
With Speaker Nancy Pelosi in control of the gavel and Joe Biden in the White House, the immediate priority for the new House is ending the pandemic and providing economic relief. Many of the new members are applying a feminist perspective to that imperative, interpreting Biden’s slogan to “build back better” as a mandate for gender and racial equity.
Ross, a cosponsor of the North Carolina Equal Pay Act, has called attention to how the economic crisis has exacerbated gender pay inequities. Jacobs has emphasized that COVID-19 relief must include child care, as has Manning.
“With kids staying home from school, women are being forced to leave the workforce to care for their families,” Manning says. “As we build our country back stronger and more equitably than before, we must create policies that ensure equal op- portunities for women and girls.”
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Leger Fernandez echoes those imperatives. “COVID has laid bare the … inequities of our society,” she says. “We need to be very strategic about saying, ‘Let’s not just pump money into the economy.’ Let’s do it in a way that also addresses those other long-term needs. ‘Building back better’ means we are addressing the inequities now, and we are creating a condition where we look different 10 years from now, five years from now, two years from now.”
With a now stronger conservative majority on the Supreme Court, the fate of Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance. All of these new congresswomen are champions of reproductive freedom and justice, and their ranks include battle-tested advocates.
Williams served as vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood Southeast for 10 years. As a Georgia state senator, she led opposition to GOP-led efforts to outlaw abortion. But with Republicans controlling the statehouse and executive office, Georgia in 2019 enacted a de facto abortion ban that included penalties of up to 10 years in prison for doctors and women. (The law was struck down by a federal judge, a ruling the state has appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.)
Reproductive rights was a central—and winning—issue in several races. Explicitly campaigning to defend women’s right to legal abortion, Newman of Illinois defeated one of the last anti-choice Democrats in the House.
Bourdeaux’s win in her state was equally pivotal. “I ran against an opponent who aimed to make it illegal for a woman to have an abortion, even if it would save her life,” she told Ms. “The last thing Georgia women need is another politician trying to criminalize their reproductive health.”
The new Democratic congresswomen as a whole support paid family and medical leave, affordable quality child care, the Paycheck Fairness Act and LGBTQ equality, as well as ending the wage gap and raising wages for the largely female caregiving work force. Many see long-standing feminist economic empowerment policies, such as paid leave and universal child care, as pillars of a society that values care work and caregiving.
Linking reproductive freedom and justice to women’s economic empowerment, in her Missouri race Bush issued a comprehensive gender equality platform, including protecting and expanding access to reproductive health care, the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, support for equal pay legislation and Medicare for All.
Williams, who was a deputy executive director at Care in Action, the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s advocacy arm, talks about child care, paid leave and long-term care as part of the nation’s infrastructure
These incoming congresswomen are also applying a gender lens to priorities such as climate action and voting rights protection. To address climate change, for example, Newman is calling for a green stimulus package that creates union jobs, and she plans to include women-owned businesses in contracting opportunities.
“The one thing that I think is super important is women’s engagement in the green stimulus economy,” she says. “We’ve got to stop making it hard for women to access capital. … My hope is that this next economy is not just a greener economy, but it is a female economy that provides equity and equality.”
More broadly, 2021’s new Democratic congresswomen bring not just experience and commitment to feminist and progressive policy change, but a way of thinking that could very well expand our notions of who exercises political power and for what purpose.
“We have this incredible love for our communities,” Leger Fernandez told Ms. “Whenever you love something—whether it’s a child, a friend, an ideal—when that … person you love is in pain, you’re going to do everything you can. … Right now, our country is in such pain. We need to use that wonderful strength that we have, that force of love for our beloved community.”
“What would happen if … we made our policies from a place of love?” she adds. “That’s what we should all be doing. We might not call it that, but … that’s the calling we should do.”
Get further introduced to the new feminists in Congress by listening to the recent episode of “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin”: Meet the New Feminists in Congress (with Jennifer Steinhauer + Reps. Carolyn Bourdeaux, Teresa Leger Fernandez and Marie Newman).
Or head to the episode landing page for a full transcript:
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