By Colleen Flaherty
Election Day 2012 brought an unprecedented number of wins for women running for office. The U.S. Senate will be home to 20 female members, a historic high. The good news for students and educators is that historically, more diversity in Congress sets a better stage for pro-education policies.
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“When women are in office, they have the right priorities. They put women and families first,” said Jess McIntosh, communications director for EMILY’s List, a nonprofit organization that promotes progressive women in politics.
The field of teaching remains a female-dominated profession, and 74 percent of National Education Association members–who are teachers and education support professionals–are female. According to McIntosh, Congress should resemble the constituency they represent.
“Government ought to look like a representative democracy. Young girls ought to be able to grow up and look at Congress and say, yeah, that looks like my classroom, that looks like my hometown, that looks like me.”
According to studies by the Impact Project looking at the impact of female involvement in legislation, women overwhelming vote to protect public education, especially programs like Head Start and early education.
“For the most part, they’re not thinking about special interests or advancing their political careers,” said McIntosh. “They’re thinking about what they can do to improve the lives that they understand really well, the lives of women and families in America.”
She credits the GOP for bolstering women’s representation. After their wins in 2010, conservatives ran on very socially divisive issues, some anti-union and anti-education, and that brought out supporters for women candidates.
“Voters turned out in record numbers, and they elected these really great women. The face of 113th Congress is going to look really different because of it,” said McIntosh.
Senator-elect Mazie Hirono is among the newly elected and the first Asian-American woman in the Senate. Jean Dobashi, a retired teacher in Hawaii, who was elated when Hirono won.
“Mazie is our champion when it comes to early childhood education and education for all. She has a perfect voting record when it comes to children and great public schools for every student,” said Dobashi.
Hirono is a Japanese immigrant who came to this country at a very young age and highly praises the education she received in Hawaii. Dobashi said Hirono strives to provide the same opportunities she had growing up to all students.
“Every Asian-American woman felt proud and happy for Mazie. She will represent all of us very well in the Senate chambers.”
In Wisconsin, Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s stunning defeat of former governor and former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson for an open Senate seat was another historic win. Baldwin is the first openly gay senator and in her time in the House of Representatives, she established a consistent pro-education voting record.
“Tammy understands that access to quality public education is instrumental in leveling the playing field and has fought to make sure we are investing in our children’s future,” said Rep. Chris Taylor, a Democratic State Assembly Representative from Madison.
“We know we can count on Tammy to stand up for hard-working middle class families and for opportunities our children need to succeed.”
In Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren defeated incumbent Scott Brown in a hotly contested Senate race. Lois Jacobs is a retired teacher in Boston who was excited for Warren and her new colleagues.
“Finally we have more women in Congress. It’s about time,” said Jacobs. “I want this new crop of women to stand up for education. I want these congresswomen to have a more realistic approach to education reform.”
Jacobs, a teacher of 23 years, said it was gratifying to see anti-education candidates defeated. She said it’s reassuring that funding will be protected for any programs that help children.
“Any women who brought up children understand the importance of Sesame Street. After this election, we know Big Bird is safe.”
When all is said and done, said McIntosh, diversity in our representation is crucial to make sure all perspectives are represented.
“Women bring something different to the table. Those are important viewpoints that need to be considered when you’re talking about the lives of Americans.”