Loading articles...

As women celebrate historic Congress, consensus is the hardest roads lie ahead

WASHINGTON — Just up Pennsylvania Avenue from Capitol Hill, where a roof-raising posse of congresswomen wearing white upstaged Donald Trump during last week’s state of the union, a drizzle-soaked lineup Tuesday outside the Canadian embassy offered still more proof that women in Washington are having a moment.

Embassy staffers handed out orange umbrellas to queued-up latecomers outside while guests jammed into a standing-room-only auditorium to celebrate members of Congress — present and future — as the vanguard of a female-driven paradigm shift in American politics.

“We are really in this profound and historic moment — 100 years after women got the right to vote, now you have the largest number of women ever serving in the body,” said newly elected Rep. Haley Stevens, a Democrat from Michigan who helped oversee Barack Obama’s auto-industry bailout efforts in 2009.

“While nobody asked me to run for Congress, I put up my hand to go do that because I felt something in the air and I felt the charge of the time.”

In November, that charge became a thunderbolt.

Americans elected 36 new female faces in last year’s midterm elections — most of them Democrats in the House of Representatives — in what proved to be the most ethnically diverse and women-centric freshman class in the history of Congress, which now boasts the most women members in its history, including the first Muslim and Indigenous women ever elected to sit in the chamber.

They have made their presence felt ever since, no more so than during the state of the union speech. More than half the new jobs created last year were filled by women, Trump said, prompting a raucous that’s-us outburst of high-fives and raise-the-roof gestures from the women in the Democratic caucus, all of them dressed in white in tribute to the suffrage movement.

Prior to Tuesday night’s panel — organized by Running Start, an advocacy group that helps young women who aspire to elected office — a group of young finalists hoping to be named the group’s ambassador took to the stage to show off their skills.

“Even a few months ago, Congress didn’t look like this,” gushed Ewurama Appiagyei-Dankah, a Running Start alum and former intern for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who’s now contesting the Democratic nomination to run for U.S. president.  

“There were times during my internship when I questioned whether I belonged on Capitol Hill.”

It doesn’t take an ambitious, type-A ‘alpha’ woman to mount a successful election bid, said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, a Democrat who now represents Pennsylvania’s 6th District.

“I would so much rather be in my pyjamas right now,” Houlahan, a self-professed introvert, admitted to gales of laughter.

“This is a hard experience, and I think that makes it better. I really, genuinely have to do this — it’s a calling, this is a call to serve, and I think people should answer their call, whatever it is. If it makes you uncomfortable, that’s even better, because we all are here to serve a purpose and to challenge ourselves.”

Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould was on hand for the event, as was Maryam Monsef, the federal minister for women and gender equality, both of whom spent the last two days taking part in meetings on Capitol Hill.

Winning an election, said Monsef, is the easy part.

“Celebrating this important milestone, all of us are also mindful of the fact that this progress is not carved in stone, that we still have a long way to go,” she said in an interview.

“No one comes into these roles expecting them to be easy. If they were easy, we already would have achieved the progress that we’re still working on, you know, 100 years ago, when women first began to get the right to vote. Expecting that it’s going to be difficult is something that we all have in common coming into this.”

That’s something to which Jody Wilson-Raybould, Monsef’s now-former cabinet colleague and long seen as one of the Liberal government’s strongest female stars, can no doubt attest.

Wilson-Raybould, who was shuffled out of the justice portfolio last month and placed in Veterans Affairs, quit cabinet in an apparent show of defiance Tuesday as controversy mounted over allegations Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office improperly tried to pressure her to help Montreal-based construction giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.  

Trudeau, of course, famously came into office in 2015 touting his feminist bona fides and promising to champion issues of gender equality, including around his own cabinet table. But the treatment of the famously strong-willed Wilson-Raybould has Liberal critics — and even allies — raising the spectre of sexism.

“I can tell you she is fierce, smart and unapologetic,” Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes tweeted on the weekend. “When women speak up and out, they are always going to be labelled. Go ahead. Label away. We are not going anywhere.”

The Wilson-Raybould controversy will “absolutely not” derail the Liberal government’s gender equality agenda, Monsef insisted Wednesday.

“This work is going to continue and we’re going to stay focused on it,” she said, citing pay equity legislation, the decision to turn the Status of Women agency into a full-blown government department and the advancement of gender issues through last year’s G7 meetings as key victories.

“The results speak for themselves, and we’re going to remain focused relentlessly on advancing women and gender equality because it’s the right thing to do and it grows the economy.”

James McCarten, The Canadian Press