A record-breaking number of women have won congressional races, and for the first time in our country’s history, there will be at least 100 women serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.
These women are diverse in many ways — in age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and party affiliation.
This was a remarkable gain for women. But the rise of women today did not start just two years ago, and it didn’t happen simply because of the election of President Donald Trump, although his attitudes toward women did prompt many to jump into political races. Rather, decades and generations of hard work have paved the way for this surge.
We should not overlook these important efforts that occurred in the workplace, in politics and throughout society — not only in high-profile positions but also in classrooms, in families and in the everyday personal interactions that affirm women’s ability to lead.
The benefit of knowing this part of today’s story is to ensure that we continue to invest in long-term solutions that work. From Supreme Court justices to the growing influence of female executives in business, women in leadership positions have changed our collective expectations about what women can do and where they belong.
In Hollywood, for example, the rise of female writers and directors, along with the revival of “inclusion riders,” has led to the continued development of more nuanced, strong, female characters in TV shows, movies and films. On college and university campuses around the country, women and gender studies programs that proliferated by the early 1990s have in more recent years extended their focus beyond the study of women to broader questions about sexuality and the intersections of race and gender.
Our collective investment in addressing forms of discrimination in our everyday lives also made an important contribution to the emergence and success of female candidates. While social media may augment rancor and division, it has also provided a platform for promoting new leaders and new ideas about gender. For example, the student activists affected by the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida rose to prominence through Twitter.
Personal blogs about stay-at-home dads and full-time working mothers have helped to normalize nontraditional gender roles. Marriage equality and same-sex parenting have also aided in changing gender-based expectations for candidates. As parenting becomes a task for all genders, we begin to assume less about the responsibilities of one sex as primary caregiver and therefore open up more space for women to run for political office.
Female voters were also engaged and politically educated. From looking at political websites to participating in political discussions, ordinary people (not just experts or professionals) took part in political debates online, in chat spaces and through blogs. Even school curricula that engage children in current events and after-school activities that promote political awareness have effectively built capacity to empower meaningful political engagement among young people. These young people showed up at the polls, and some ran for political office.
While at home over the dinner table, at a board meeting, or at the grocery store, when we treat one another with respect, we begin to overcome the potential for sexism to marginalize women’s ambitions. In doing so, we model a world in which we engage in constructive debate to solve the complex problems of our world today. A world where we reject jokes that are designed to poke fun at what makes someone different and where we affirm the right of every individual to express their full potential.
Although this current rise of female candidates was at least partly sparked by current events, we must not forget the progress that has been made over many years. The work of rolling back sexism is far from over, but when we affirm women’s leadership through our interactions in classrooms, in families and in our everyday lives, we pave the way for the continued rise of women in politics.
Stephanie Holmsten is an assistant professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin.