How Many More Miles? The 100th Woman in Congress and the Question of Progress

It’s not news by now that Republicans took control of the Senate earlier this month in the midterm elections, and questions abound over the lame duck session before the new Congress officially begins its work next year. Will there be another stand-off over funding the government? Will the Republicans in Congress be able to unite to push their legislative goals forward? As POLITICO titled a recent article , “The Angst is Rising on Capitol Hill”.

But with the worrying forecasts, elections are a moment to pause and think on our progress in relationship to other goals: goals like voter turnout, campaign spending, and, for the purposes of this article, the demographics of Congress. The 2014 elections were, according to The Boston Globe, a “political milestone” for women: the 100th woman will be sworn into the next Congress. The article cites several key races: Alma Adams (D-NC) in the 12th district of North Carolina (who will actually be sworn in immediately as part of the 113th Congress), Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who is the youngest woman elected to Congress, Mia Love (R-UT), the first African-American Republican woman elected to Congress, and Joni Ernst (R-IA), who was elected to the Senate. The article calls Adams’s election in a “huge stride for female politicians.”

But, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, 2014 is better characterized as, “Not a Landmark Year for Women, Despite Some Notable Firsts.” Among these notable firsts, CAWP notes for the Senate, “The 114th Congress will have six GOP women senators, the largest number to date. Senator-Elect Joni Ernst will be the first woman ever in Iowa’s congressional delegation – House or Senate – and first woman veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate.” For the House, CAWP cites Mia Love’s election (first African-American Republican), two women who are the first African-American women in Congress from their state, and Elise Stefanik’s election as the youngest woman elected to Congress in history.

The numbers in the full CAWP report are not tremendously encouraging. And it raises the question for us: is this progress? “Record-setting 100th woman in Congress takes oath today,” claims USA Today. And Rebecca Sive of MSNBC offers to tell us “Why women were the real midterm winners.”

According to an MSNBC article on Adams’ election as the 100th woman in Congress, “For half a century, women have outvoted men. In the 2012 election, women composed 53% of the electorate. Since 1980, women have cast ballots at a higher rate than men in presidential and midterm elections.”

So the question for us is: do we celebrate this milestone, this triple-digit progress from the 24 women who were elected to Congress a mere thirty years ago? Or do we pause to ask another question, namely, why is progress so slow?

I’ve been wondering about this often in the past several weeks, as I’ve also been reflecting on the gender breakdown in various academic fields, my own included. In higher levels of academia, the number of women in my field of philosophy drops significantly. Currently, women make up about 18% of philosophy faculty members. In physics in 2010, women made up about 14% of the physics and astronomy faculty . In political science, women made up about 28.6% of faculty members in 2010, according to this article from Inside Higher Ed.

Are these numbers progress? What counts as progress in efforts to diversify and efforts to encourage all who share a passion and a calling to a particular field - or particular kind of elected office - to fully pursue it?

We might say it is progress compared with where we were 30 or 40 or even 10 years ago. We might say it is progress and point to Constitutional amendments and female Nobel prize winners. We might say it is progress and think about women who grew up as free to love engineering as anyone on the neighborhood street.

But progress shouldn’t just be measured with respect to where we have been. It must also be measured with respect to the end at which this progress is aiming. After all, the notion of progress is directed movement, somewhere we are seeking to go, not just somewhere we are moving away from. And from the perspective of where we should want to go, and where we are practically headed, electing the 100th woman to Congress is a milestone still pretty near to the starting line.

So I am not opposed to celebrating the fact that there are more women in Congress than ever before. But I am asking that if we do call this progress, it should be with great agitation. If we do call this progress, it should be with sadness as we reflect on the fact that we are only now, in 2014, a full 166 years after the Seneca Falls convention where some of the first women’s suffrage advocates gathered, breaking the 100 mark in a 535 member Congress with a population that’s 51% female. If we call this progress it must be because we are seeking to motivate ourselves to ask deeper questions and to press for deeper solutions.

And it is those questions: questions of why a given population doesn’t run, questions of how we might imagine new policies or procedures that encourage that population to run, that should make us more, not less, restless for a fuller inclusion of all kinds of under-represented populations in political office.

If we call this progress, it should be because we are aware that we are journeying, that we are still a long way from, justice.

-Hilary Yancey is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Baylor University, where she hopes to focus her studies in bioethics and the philosophy of the human person. You can find Hilary writing about everyday life and faith at her blog: chatting on Twitter and Instagram at @hilaryyancey.