Grit, grace and guts: Women in Texas politics

Veronica Escobar celebrates early voting results at her primary election watch party in El Paso on Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

As has been widely reported, Texas is sending two Latinas to serve in the U.S. House in January. State Sen. (and proud Texas Woman’s University alumna) Sylvia Garcia will replace Gene Green in Houston’s Congressional District 29 and former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar will replace Beto O’Rourke in Congressional District 16.

Texas continues its history of female firsts, where women possess the grit, grace and guts to make their way in the world of politics and public policy. They join women leaders such NATO Ambassador and former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, U.S. Reps. Kay Granger, Eddie Bernice Johnson and Sheila Jackson Lee, U.S. Rep.-elect Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, the late Gov. Ann Richards, and of course, Barbara Jordan, the first black congresswoman ever elected from Texas. And that’s just on the federal and state level.

Including U.S. Reps.-elect Garcia and Escobar, at least 123 women will serve in the next Congress, increasing the percentage of women from 20 percent to 23 percent at a minimum, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

Election night 2018 brought a lot of firsts for women in Congress. History was made with the election of:

  • The first Native Americans elected: Democrats Sharice Davids from Kansas and Deb Haaland from New Mexico.
  • The first Muslims elected: Democrats Rashida Tlaib from Michigan and Ilhan Omar from Minnesota.
  • The first black women in their respective states, Democrats Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Jahana Hayes of Connecticut.
  • Tennessee will send Republican Marsha Blackburn and Arizona will send Democrat Krysten Sinema as their first women U.S. senators.
  • The ages of women have changed as well: In the last Congress, there were just two women under 40, now at least 11 will serve.

While women won a record number of seats in this year’s election, there’s much work that needs to be accomplished to level the playing field of American politics. As has been widely reported, Republican women weren’t part of the wave; their numbers actually decreased in Congress.

Astronaut Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and a Texas Women’s Hall of Fame honoree, once quipped, “You can’t be what you don’t see.”

Finally, women (and girls) are seeing other women lead in politics. They’re actually seeing people who look like them running for office and winning. And seeing is believing that you, too, can achieve success.

For most of our nation’s history, the political narrative was one-sided: white and male.

With more women now taking office, the narrative is changed forever. While gender parity in politics is still decades away, history illustrates it took more than 70 years for women to finally win the right to vote. The language for women’s suffrage that was first offered in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, is the exact language enacted into law in 1920 — 72 years later.

This year it was Democratic women who were spurred to action because of the “Trump Effect.” They were angry and scared about the president’s rhetoric but turned that passion into a plan: running for office.

While a record number of Democratic (and a smattering of Republican) women won, many more lost. To achieve lasting change, they must continue their civic engagement and advocacy after Election Day. They only lost this first battle.

Men have been running, winning and losing for centuries. Men who lose hold their heads high, learn from their mistakes and add the experience to their resumes (and list it in their obituaries!). Women must recognize that losing their first battle doesn’t mean they’ve lost the war.

Public service is a journey, not a sprint. The 2018 election, for many women, was just the first race. Women no longer treat politics as a spectator sport. They’re playing with grit, grace and guts.

Shirley Chisholm of New York, the first black woman elected to Congress in 1968, used to say, “If they won’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Next year, women will have more than just a folding chair at the table of leadership. They’ll finally have a real seat. There’s no turning back as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020.

Disclosure: Texas Woman’s University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Nancy Bocskor

Director, Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy, Texas Woman’s University

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