There’s no denying that 2020 was a difficult year, and at times our country seemed to take big steps backwards. But as a new Congress comes together and a new administration takes power, there’s plenty of reason for optimism: For one thing, we’ll see unprecedented diversity among our 2021 leaders—and hopefully an unprecedented commitment to equity for all as well.
The 117th Congress includes a record-breaking number of diverse women from both the Democratic and Republican parties.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, a total of 144 women—or 26.9% of the U.S. House and Senate combined—were elected to serve in Congress, beating the record set in 2019 of 127 women (23.7%). That includes 106 Democrats and 38 Republicans, with the number of Democrats holding steady since 2019 and the number of Republicans up by 16 women (from 22) in 2019 and by 8 (from 30) since 2006, the previous peak year.
Women of color are making Congressional history as well. Fifty-two will serve in 2021, according to CAWP, comprising 9.7% of the 117th Congress, including 47 Democrats and 5 Republicans.
This progress is promising but not complete, since our Congressional representatives are still a long way from reflecting the demographics of the country they’re representing. Women comprise more than half of the United States, and women of color make up roughly 36% of the female population and 18% of the entire population. But as more women run—and win—Congressional seats, the U.S. is inching closer to a true representative democracy.
In addition, a record number of women will serve at the state legislative level in 2021—at least 2,277 women, or 30.8% of those in state legislative offices nationwide, according to data compiled by CAWP. This exceeds the current level—and previous high—of 2,162 women state legislators. Coming out of the November election, there were new records set across parties.
It will also be a historic year for state representation from the transgender and LGBTQ communities. Voters elected six transgender candidates to state office, bringing the nationwide total from four to seven.
Although we have a long way to go to true parity—this year, just one state (Nevada) has more women than men in its legislative body, according to CAWP—every record-breaking year creates new inroads for women, as they bring their diverse networks into their roles and inspire future generations of women to follow in their footsteps.
The Presidential Cabinet
The rich diversity of President-elect Biden’s team started with his pick for Vice President. Kamala Harris is the first woman, and the first Black American, Indian and South Asian American to assume the second highest office in the land—a truly remarkable achievement.
Biden has also fulfilled his promise to assemble the most diverse Cabinet in American history. His administration marks many milestones for women and people of color, including the first all-female communications team, the first Native American secretary of the interior (Deb Haaland), and the first woman treasury secretary (Janet Yellen). If confirmed, his cabinet will become the first to achieve gender parity and to include a majority of people of color.
In addition, many of the picks have encouraging records of prioritizing equity. For example, Miguel Cardona—Biden’s choice for Secretary of Education and the current Connecticut Commissioner of Education, has worked to close the achievement gap among Black, Latino and low-income students and their white and wealthier counterparts.
Heather Boushey, one of Biden’s appointees to become a member of his economic council and a 1997-98 AAUW American Fellow, is an expert on how structural inequalities impinge on economic growth. AAUW is proud to have invested in Boushey early on, providing educational funding to launch her career as a top economist, author, adviser to presidents, and CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
Finally, Biden’s recent nominations for the Department of Justice—Lisa Monaco for deputy attorney general, Vanita Gupta for associate attorney general, and Kristen Clarke for assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division—are trailblazers who have impressive track records fighting for equity and civil rights.
Despite all the losses and disappointments of 2020, so much is still possible with each new day—and with every diverse new leader elected or appointed to serve in our government.