Women were the big winners
AUSTIN — Texas never sent a Latina to Congress before, but voters opted to send two in last week’s election.
Voters in Michigan and Minnesota elected the nation’s first Muslim women to Congress.
Also, New York is sending a 29-year-old woman to join them, making her the youngest female elected to the House of Representatives.
All of those firsts are just the beginning of historic wins that will send the most women ever to Congress, and twice as many women from Texas, with six in the state’s 2019 congressional delegation.
Other states made their own landmarks. Iowa, which never had sent a woman to Congress, voted to send two. And two states — New Mexico and Kansas — elected the nation’s first Native American women to Congress.
“I think the last presidential election was a gutcheck,” said Shelia Patrick, a project manager from Round Rock as she and thousands of women gathered Friday at the 19th annual Texas Conference for Women in Austin. “It’s a widening awakening of saying, what is our worth?”
It was an election in which health care became a leading issue and suburban women were a prized demographic for Democrats.
People in the crowd at the Conference for Women pointed to President Donald Trump, the “me too” movement and the confirmation battle over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh for having propelled more women into office.
“I think it’s about time,” said Sharon Fisher of Cedar Park, who works with environmental, health and safety sectors of the semiconductor industry. “As time
goes on, we’re going to see more women infiltrating Congress, Senate, more women CEOs, more women businesses — because already, women have surpassed men in going to college and getting educated.”
Women won in races all over Texas, turning around a decadelong slump.
After Texans elected an all-time high of 50 women to serve in state office and Congress in 2008, female candidates lost seats in the Texas House for four elections in a row while the number of women in Congress remained stuck at three.
Big winners here included Democratic state Sen. Sylvia Garcia in Houston and El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar. Both Latinas easily won their bids for Congress in Democratic strongholds.
Attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Democrat, also won in an upset in Houston by unseating a longtime GOP congressman.
Other Texas women running for Congress came close. Gina Ortiz Jones, who has yet to concede defeat, is within 1 percentage point of unseating Republican incumbent Will Hurd in a district spanning from San Antonio to El Paso, according to unofficial election results.
MJ Hegar — a Williamson County Democrat whose candidacy was boosted by a viral campaign ad revealing she and her mother fled from domestic violence when she was a girl — lost her race north of Austin by 3 percentage points.
Hegar’s ad highlights how Tuesday’s elections are transforming the expectations of how women can campaign, said Joanne Green, a political science professor at Texas Christian University. Not only were many of the female candidates veterans this year, but many ignored longstanding taboos for women seeking office.
“Women candidates historical- ly showed no vulnerability … they’re supposed to be like superwomen,” Green said. “That they could be mothers, but don’t remind us that they’re mothers. That they could be married, but don’t remind us they’re married because people will wonder if their husbands are going to be too influential or if they have their husband’s permission.
“That’s really shifting, I think, and really allowing women to show the multiplicity of their life.”
Still, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research predicts it will take another century for women to take half of the seats in the U.S. House and Senate. After Tuesday’s election, women are claiming 23 percent.
That ratio was on actress Reese Witherspoon’s mind as she ad- dressed the crowd of 7,500 in her keynote speech at the Conference for Women.
“Now it’s our job to be the boundary-pushers, the first in our communities, in our families and our communities, in our government. I think it’s amazing to see how many women came out to run for office because we are not well-represented in our government,” said Witherspoon, who launched her own company to give more authentic voices to female characters.
“I think we need to do more and we need to step up as leaders.”
Voters this year elected 101 female representatives in the U.S. House, 40 of whom are women of color.
No more than 85 women have ever served in the 435-member House of Representatives at one time, a record set two years ago.
“It’s a slow ripple,” said Amber Bogie, 30, who works in software marketing in Austin. “It’s a more and more normal conversation for women to be front and center.”
In the Texas Legislature, 37 women won seats, many of them newcomers bumping off incumbent Republicans.
“I started running and a lot of people want to make you into a mold,” said Michelle Beckley, who ran for office as an underdog and won in a state House race north of Dallas.
She’s a bird store owner and Democrat motivated by the 2016 election. She said her goal was to run an authentic campaign.
“People want real people as politicians. They want somebody they can relate to. I think that’s more the mindset than anything else right now.”
Most of the women who won in Tuesday’s election were Democrats. In Congress, Democrats gained a majority in the U.S. House, and the Democrats in the Texas House gained 12 seats. Republicans maintain majorities in both the U.S. Senate, Texas Senate, governorship and all of the state’s executive branch offices.
“In a national environment where so much feels threatened, having these fresh voices talking about the issues they care about that actually improve quality of life and build stronger communities and create equal opportunities, that connected,” said Kimberly Caldwell, program director of Annie’s List, a group that supported 37 female candidates for statewide, legislative and local offices this election cycle. Thirtyone of those candidates won.
Despite the gains, women hold just 47 of the 219 Texas congressional and state Legislature seats.
“It’s this message of empowerment that’s starting to really spread,” said Anne Grady, an author and TEDx speaker who focuses on communication, leadership and emotional intelligence. “It’s been building. It’s this momentum of women starting to feel more confident. I think we’re starting to see women who are trying to model the behavior they want their daughters to see.”
Houston Democrat Sylvia Garcia is introduced on stage by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee during a celebration of Garcia’s election as a U.S. representative.
Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, left, was elected to the U.S. House.
El Paso’s Veronica Escobar was elected to Congress.