130 Reasons to be Thankful for the 116th Congress

By Sammie Espada

As 2018 comes to a close, it is time to reflect on the impact this year had on all of our lives. This year challenged women to see themselves in new leadership roles. More women than ever ran for political office — and they won. The 116th Congress will set a new record for the number of women representing our country with 130 women (126 voting members, 4 nonvoting). These women defy the mold of what a traditional political leader is supposed to look like: they are young and they are ethnically, religiously, and politically diverse. I am thankful for all of these women for providing new role models for young girls and women to run for office.

As I spent time with loved ones over the holiday week, I noted all of the young women in my life. My younger cousins and my niece (ranging from 5 to 21 years old) were all eager to hear about my experience in Washington, DC as a Running Start Congressional Fellow. They were all looking up to me to guide their future steps. In the three months I have been gone, so much about their lives has changed as they embark on new adventures and discover more of their capabilities. Still, they dream of being chefs, artists, and lawyers — none of them dream of being a political leader.

My 8 year old cousin, Angel, spent Thanksgiving leading the charge with all the young girls following her. She cunningly convinced all of us to play Jenga, then Twister, and even a unicorn toss. I watched her talk to the other girls in our family and every conversation left with Angel getting what she asked. Her presence is commanding, her spirit infectious — she’s a natural born leader. But we have never talked about her running for office, even though she can be a chef, a sister, a daughter, a mother, and a politician. In fact,she can do anything she wants — if she knows it’s possible. Young women, however, experience a gender gap in political ambition from a young age. We are not encouraged to run for office by our families or by the media. Women are less likely than men to have considered running for office or to express interest in a candidacy at some point in the future. Women do not see themselves in office because it is not a norm for women to be political leaders.

As a young Latina, I also strongly feel the lack of enough women of color in political office to help guide us. But 2018 changed that. Ayanna Pressley, in her victory speech, noted that women of color candidates hit a concrete ceiling. Breaking it means, she said:

“Seismic shifts, drastic change. When those tectonic plates of revolution shift below our feet…Stronger than any one person or any one institution, it builds up from the ground beneath our feet. This groundswell, this shift can break through concrete.”

My young cousins and my niece will see women that look like them in all forms of leadership in 2019. They will see women in their state legislature, governorships, and the US Congress. Most powerfully for my family and me, they will see women of color leading the charge and making their voices heard. Because of the women of the 116th Congress I can see myself running for office more than ever before. I see women with similar values and backgrounds who are willing to challenge the norms and fight for their communities. I see women changing the face of politics, changing its priorities, and re-engaging communities who have long been underrepresented in politics. I am thankful these women have etched a path for me and women like me to lead.

Most importantly, I am thankful that these women are just the beginning. They will grow as politicians in front of us and they will change the future of politics. The young women of our country are looking at these women to continue to break barriers for us all. They make a woman President seem that much closer and they make it seem more plausible that we will reach gender parity in politics. (Although to get there, we need more women of all political ideologies to run — especially when we’ll see women’s representation among Republicans in Congress decrease next year.)

My time with Running Start has also made me hopeful about getting more women to the table. As a Congressional Fellow, I am surrounded by women of different political, ethnic, and religious backgrounds who are all eager to run for office one day. I am certain these women are the future of politics. Women who are ready to learn, compromise, and put in work to better their communities and our country. The 116th Congress created a critical seismic shift. Now it’s time for the next generation of women leaders to step through those cracks and make our own mark.

Sammie Espada is a current Running Start Congressional Fellow interning in the US Senate. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018 with a degree in Women and Gender Studies and Political Science with a minor in Latinx Studies. She is a native New Yorker passionate about her Latinx heritage and empowering young girls and women of color to reach their full potential.