Much of the world rejoiced last week at the news that the US had elected its first African-American president. But that major milestone was not the only historic achievement of this political season. Advances by women, less euphorically trumpeted in the media, should also be noted, celebrated and emulated – starting with Hillary Clinton’s historic primary campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
• The number of female U.S. Senators has risen from 16 to 17, the highest ever.
• In the House of Representatives, a new high has also been set with the victories of 10 new women and 64 female incumbents, making a total of 74 Congresswomen; among them are 12 African-Americans, 7 Latinas, and 2 Asian-Americans. (A woman candidate in Ohio is in a race still too close to call.)
• Based on the seats already decided, the overall percentage of women in Congress rose from 16.3% in the 2007-2008 session to 17%, another record. (8 states have women governors, marking no change from 2008.)
• Moreover, a record number of women will serve in state legislatures, according to a recent CAWP news release. In the 2009 session session the legislative bodies of the 50 states will be at least 24.2% female.
• And, in case you hadn’t heard: for the first time in U.S. history, women have gained a majority of seats in a state legislative body. The New Hampshire Senate saw the number of female members rise from 10 to 13 of 24, or 54%. According to Sylvia Larsen, Senate President, voters valued women candidates’ qualities as consensus-builders and their effectiveness in “getting the job done.” I learned about this historic milestone on Amy Goodman’s progressive news broadcast "Democracy Now," and from Jacki Lyden's interview with Larsen on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." The mainstream and commercial media were apparently too caught up in Obamania to have noticed—or did I simply miss it, here in Germany?
However, the BBC and the Washington Post did both report on a similarly historic election this past September in Rwanda, whose parliament now sets the world’s record with 56% of seats going to women. The Rwandan constitution, put in place after the 1994 genocide, requires that 30% of parliamentary seats (and cabinet positions) be held by women. But the remaining 26% were won by women independent of any quota. In contrast to neighboring countries, where women are discriminated against and victimized by patriarchal legal systems and customs and (as in the Congo or Darfur) by widespread rape, the critical mass of Rwandan women in the government has resulted in changed laws and increased opportunites. As one Rwandan man put it, "In my view, women are more reasonable, more merciful and less corrupt than men.…And culturally, women have not been recognized."
In a world filled with bad news, all these results give us hope.
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