In 1972, I was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. It was a thrill to be a representative of the American electorate -- especially that year, when women were making huge strides toward equality and the electricity of change was in the air. This was our year, the Year of the Woman. Before the election, we had exactly 11 women in Congress -- one in the Senate and 10 in the House of Representatives. When the smoke cleared from the election, we had picked up a total of (wait for it...) four seats. Not exactly a triumph.
The good news is, this year there are 181 women running for Congress -- and while not all of the candidates would win my vote, they sure do win my admiration...for running.
We need more women in the Capitol. From left to right, liberal to conservative, women have simply got to get a larger toehold in federal government. That's the best -- the only -- way to achieve real balance in Washington.
This year's candidates might not know it, but they all owe a debt of gratitude to Jeannette Rankin, who was the first woman elected to Congress -- in 1916, just two years after her home state of Montana granted women the right to vote. (See? Let women vote and they elect women!) Even as the U.S. debated our entry into World War I, Representative Rankin made women's suffrage her first priority, asking her colleagues to explain how "the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?" Rankin's measure failed to pass that year, but just four years later the 19th Amendment gave all American women the right to vote.
That sent a wave of women to Washington, but it was no tsunami. For most of the 20th century, the U.S. Senate had only one or two women at a time (out of 100 senators). It wasn't until 1991 that women senators numbered more than two (when we got up to a whopping four). We did a bit better in the House of Representatives, but it was 1997 (just 15 years ago!) before women totaled more than 50 there -- and that's out of 435 members.
Think we're doing swimmingly now? Not quite. Women hold exactly 90 of the 535 seats in the current Congress -- 17 Senators and 73 Representatives. That's less than 17 percent of our federal legislators, when we are 51 percent of the population.
That's simply unthinkable -- and inexcusable. Where will our first woman president come from if not from among the legislators on the national stage? Where will we find our Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel? Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister of India in 1966 and Golda Meir took the helm in Israel in 1969 -- and we didn't even have a serious vice presidential candidate until Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. In 2008, Hillary Clinton became the first real contender for our presidency, but she didn't get nominated, while Ireland has had two women presidents in a row!
After becoming the first Iraq War veteran in Congress, President Obama appointed Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) to assistant secretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Not only is she specially qualified for her role, given her extensive resume, but she is also the first veteran in Congress to have lost both of her legs while serving her country as a pilot in the U.S. Army.
Mia Love (R-Utah) is highly aware that women need a louder voice in government, which is why this Tea Partyer from Utah is looking to be one of those voices in Congress. Although being elected would mean leaving her post as mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, if elected Mia Love would be the first African-American Mormon in the House.
When Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) was elected to the state legislature in 2002 she became the youngest woman in the United States to be elected. And, if Tulsi wins her current campaign for a seat in Congress, she will become the first Hindu member of Congress. Not only has she set standards in office, but she is also a company commander in the Hawaii Army National Guard, been on two deployments to the Middle East and vehemently focused on reforming Wall Street and establishing equal pay for women.
Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico) became the first female military veteran elected to Congress in 1998 when she assumed her seat in the House of Representatives. As a former officer in the Air Force, Heather has her eyes set on the next step – a seat in the U.S. Senate. Although she fell short in the last election, she is back on the campaign trail and determined to snag a seat in the Senate.
A seasoned state legislator, Grace Meng (D-New York) is currently running for a spot in Washington. If elected she will be the first Asian American woman to represent New York in Congress. But all firsts aside, Grace’s extensive political resume and outspoken personality proves she’s well on her way to a long and illustrious career in national politics. Recently, Grace publically called Rush Limbaugh out on his racist remarks about Chinese President, Hu Jintao.
Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) was the first openly lesbian female elected to Congress in 1998, and today she is looking to make another first by taking a seat in the U.S. Senate. As a well-seasoned professional focused on reforming health care, Medicare and Social Security, there’s no doubt Tammy has a fair shot at that Senate seat.
Thirty three-year-old Kelda Roys (D-Wisconsin) is running for a seat in Congress against incumbent, Tammy Baldwin. But despite the odds and the fact that she's one of the youngest politicians running for a seat, Kelda is undaunted. Running on an unapologetically pro-choice platform, Kelda is an expert in women's health policy and she's hoping to make her mark on women's healthcare if she's elected to Congress.
After over a dozen years of working in politics, for the first time Ann Wagner (R-Missouri) is putting her name on the ballot for a seat in the House of Representatives. Not only has she served as the Chair of the Missouri Republican Party, but Ann has also served as the ambassador to Luxembourg under President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Today, she’s hoping to bring her expertise and years of experience to Congress.
A long-time member of state legislature, Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) is looking to take her game to the national level. And, if she secures a seat in the House of Representatives this election season, Kyrsten will be the first openly bisexual member of Congress.
Former deputy attorney general and lieutenant governor, Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) is a well-seasoned politician. When she was elected to the House of Representatives in 2007, Mazie became the first immigrant woman of Asian ancestry to be elected to Congress, and today she’s looking to make her mark on the U.S. Senate.
Tarryl Clark (D-Minnesota) is specifically concerned with putting an end to the war on women, and she’s hoping to get her chance to do so in Congress. A lawyer and former state senator, Tarryl is looking to snag a seat in the House of Representatives after an unsuccessful run two years ago.
An expert in American bankruptcy law and a former Harvard law professor, Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) is currently campaigning for the chance to bring her expertise to the U.S. Senate. As the creator of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after the banking crisis in 2008, Elizabeth was named TIME Magazine’s title of “Sheriff of Wall Street”.
No stranger to Congress, Patty Murray (D-Washington) was first elected to the Senate in 1992, becoming Washington’s first female senator. Since then, she’s been elected three more times and has served as the Senate Majority Conference Secretary since 2007, making her the highest-ranking woman in the Senate. Today, Patty campaigning to maintain her seat in Congress.
Gabriela Saucedo Mercer (R-Arizona) is new to the political scene, but she is certainly a force to be reckoned with. An immigrant from Mexico, this Tea Partyer is looking to return the country to its conservative roots and is determined to find a way to address America’s border control issues.
Allyson Schwartz (D-Pennsylvania) isn’t new to the game of Congress, but she certainly cannot be overlooked. An outspoken politician, Allyson is running to defend her seat in the House of Representatives. Since 2004, she has worked in Congress to crack down on issues like the national budget, foreign affairs and health care.
Val Demings (D-Florida) became the first female police chief of Orlando in 2007, after serving as an officer for more than 24 years. But after enforcing the law for nearly three decades, today Val is looking to help create the law, which is why she is looking to snag a seat in Congress this election season.
She may have shook up the scene as the CEO of the WWE, but in recent years Linda McMahon (R-Connecticut) has been looking to impose her influence in a whole new arena. Although she was unsuccessful in her 2010 run for the Senate, Linda is back on the campaign trail and looking to secure her spot in this year’s race.
Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada) has long been active in state legislature for years, where she’s worked for job creation initiatives and has fought to close tax loopholes. In 1998, Shelley was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, making her the first female from her district ever elected. Today, she’s looking to make her mark on the U.S. Senate where she’s looking to tackle issues like equal pay for women and national job creation.
Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without Nancy Pelosi (D-California). As the Minority Leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy is clearly a woman of power in the U.S. Congress. From 2007 to 2011 she served as the 60th Speaker of the House, the first woman to hold the position, which makes her the highest-ranking female politician in American history.
This year's crop of female candidates run the gamut from old-timers Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) to first-timers like Grace Meng, a liberal New York Democrat who supports women's access to healthcare and higher taxes for upper-income earners; and LeAnne Kolb, a conservative Florida Republican whose campaign promises include repealing the Affordable Care Act and cutting taxes.
They also bring an amazing diversity of experience with them. Linda McMahon, a Republican candidate for Senate from Connecticut and the CEO of WWE, wrestled a tiny niche company into an enterprise with 600 employees. Cheri Bustos, running for the House as a Democrat from Illinois, had a long career as an investigative reporter until she developed a passion for health care reform. And the formidable Elizabeth Warren, Democratic candidate for Senate from Massachusetts, is a former Harvard law professor who championed the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau after the 2008 banking crisis.
Many of these women, if elected, would be firsts -- and you know how I do love firsts. Grace Meng would be the first Asian member of Congress from New York; Mia Love, a Tea Party candidate from Utah, would be the first African-American Mormon in the House; Democrat Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii, would be the first Hindu Representative; and Tammy Duckworth, while not the first female military vet in Congress, would be the first woman elected who lost both legs when the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was hit in Iraq.
If you have any doubt that women in Congress change the course of history -- especially for women's issues -- let me tell you about my good friend and fellow warrior Bella Abzug, who was once denied an American Express card unless her husband signed the application. It's not as if Bella didn't have a decent job of her own -- she was a member of Congress at the time -- but she was a woman, and her credit line depended on the whim of banks and the permission of her husband.
You've got to love Bella: she not only went on to spearhead the Equal Credit Opportunity Act to prohibit banks and credit card companies from denying women credit, but she made a great parody of American Express's "Do You Know Me?" commercials to tweak the credit giant's corporate nose about it -- while holding up her own hard-won card.
To paraphrase a different commercial, you've got to be in it to win it. I so admire these 181 women who are putting themselves out there -- sacrificing career, personal, and family time to bring more women to Washington.
So to all the candidates this year, congratulations for throwing your hats in the ring -- and may the best women win!
Follow Marlo Thomas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarloThomas