At a celebration for newly elected women of color in Congress, elected officials, activists and other stakeholders emphasized the need for political representation that is more reflective of America’s diverse democracy.
About 150 people assembled on Tuesday night in the nation’s capital to honor freshmen lawmakers whose victories in 2016 brought record numbers of Black, Latina, Asian and Indian American women to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Among the newest members of Congress in attendance were Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA), who is of Jamaican and South Asian descent; Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), the first Latina ever elected to the Senate; and Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the first Indian American woman in Congress.
Fellow honorees on hand included Rep. Nanette Barragan (D-CA) who is Latina, Lisa Blunt-Rochester (D-DE) and Val Demings (D-FL), both African American. Additionally, DNC Chairman Tom Perez, Congressional Black Caucus Chair, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) and fellow members of Congress were on the guest list.
The event was sponsored by the political action committee, Raising Our Sisters’ Assets (ROSA PAC), dedicated to electing women of color. The organization, founded and led by attorney Anita Estell, partnered with Emily's List, Poder PAC, Higher Heights for America and the Asian American Action Fund.
"Women of color will soon represent the collective majority of women in the U.S.," said Estell, the founder and chair of ROSA PAC.
She described the organization as the only national effort solely dedicated to increasing the numbers of women of color elected to national office. "And we want to provide the resources and support needed to elect and position candidates as leaders on issues that increase opportunity for women of color and the people we care about."
The president of Emily's List noted its support of “every single Democratic Congresswoman of color currently serving in Congress.”
“We know that having a diversity of voices at the table in Washington makes a difference, and ensures we have a government that looks like the face of America,” said Stephanie Schriock.
According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, women comprise nearly 51 percent of the U.S. population, but have been historically under-represented in electoral politics. For example, in January 2017, women held 19.4 percent of House seats, and just 21 percent in the Senate.
In 2016, history was made when nine women of color were elected to the House and Senate. Prior to last year, only two women of color (Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Sen. Kamala Harris) had ever been elected to the Senate, some two decades apart.
“We've all had the experience where we're the only one in that room who has had the experiences we've had,” Harris told the crowd. “And, what I am charging you to do is what these organizations insist we do which is remember when you're in the room seemingly by yourself, we're all in that room with you."
Event participants said significant investments must be made across the country to identify, recruit, and elect more women, particularly those of color.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, there are 104 women serving in the 115th Congress. About 38 of them are women of color.
"The narrative that the growth of women's elected leadership has stagnated or declined is not true for women of color. …,” said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder with Glynda Carr of Higher Heights for America, which champions Black women candidates.
“What their success also shows is that despite the obstacles that are unique for women of color to run for elected office, these women prevailed,” she added.
“If these barriers are removed and partnerships like this continue to flourish we will be able to double or even triple the number of women of color in Congress."