Political Firsts: Breaking Glass Ceilings in the United States and New Zealand

By Patrick McTague.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.

This week has been a busy one for politics, with the United States electing a new President and Vice President, and New Zealand’s new government being sworn in. The United States election has resulted in record numbers of women, gender diverse people, and LGBTQIA+ people entering positions of power. Meanwhile, New Zealand’s incoming government is the most diverse yet, with significant representation of women and the LGBTQIA+ community.

United States Firsts

Kamala Harris has been elected as the 46th Vice President-elect of the United States of America. She will be the first ever female, African-American, and Asian-American Vice President. This is a huge milestone for women, particularly women of colour. The United States remains a major world power, and for the first time ever, a woman will hold the second most powerful leadership position. Vice President Harris will serve as inspiration to millions of girls and women.

Kamala Harris’ election is only one of many historical firsts for women, people of colour, and the LGBTQIA+ community in the United States 2020 election. There were two women who were the first to represent their state at congress or the senate, one state that elected an all-female contingent to congress, and many first female lesbian, bisexual, and transgender representatives at state-level.

Cori Bush became the first black woman elected to Congress from Missouri. She is a progressive candidate who previously ran and lost the primaries for both 2016 Senate and 2018 Congress in Missouri.[1] She was inspired to enter politics after acting as a street medic during the Fergusson protests over the shooting of Michael Brown.[2] Her win this year demonstrates the importance of sticking by your principles and never giving up.

Washington state has elected a good proportion of female representatives to Congress, at least 5 out of 10. However, Marilyn Strickland, who has a Korean mother and African-American father, will be the first ever female Korean American congressperson. She will also be the first ever African-American congressperson from Washington.[3] Marilyn has a progressive platform including advocating for equal pay for women, women’s reproductive rights, universal healthcare, and criminal justice reform.[4]

For the first time ever, New Mexico has filled all three of its congressional seats with women of colour: Deb Haaland, Teresa Leger Fernandez, and Yvette Herrell.[5] Deb Haaland and Yvette Herrell are also history makers for Native American women. In 2018, Deb Haaland was one of the first Native American women ever elected to Congress. Yvette Herrel will be the first ever Republican Native American woman elected.[6]

Much of the coverage of the United States election is focused on the national-level races for President, Senate, and Congress. The state-level races are less publicised, which have their own version of this legislature. These legislatures are often where politicians begin their careers and can be a stepping-stone to higher office. The state-level has seen increased representation for the LGBTQIA+ community.

In Delaware, Sarah McBride will become “the highest-ranking transgender official in the U.S.” when she takes office as the first openly transgender state senator. She is currently the National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign,[7] the largest LGBTQIA+ advocacy group in the U.S.[8] She has campaigned on universal early-childhood education, expanding access to healthcare, increasing paid family and medical leave, and criminal justice reform.[9]  

Vermont and Kansas also elected the first transgender representatives to their state legislatures; Taylor Small and Stephanie Byers.

Taylor Small ran a progressive campaign focusing on healthcare, local issues, education, and defunding law enforcement.[10] She has said “her trans identity will help serve as a reminder that marginalized identities can be elected, and their perspective can only help in crafting legislation”.[11]

Stephanie Byers, a member of Chichasaw Nation, will also make history as the first ever transgender woman of colour elected to any state legislature.[12] An award winning public school teacher of 29 years,[13] Stephanie ran a simple progressive platform on education, healthcare expansion, and ending discrimination.[14]

Kim Jackson has been elected the first LGBTQIA+ state senator in Georgia. She will become only the third black female LGBTQIA+ state senator in the United States.[15] This victory is all the more significant as Georgia currently “lags nearly every state in the nation in protections for LGBTQ people”.[16]

Oklahoma elected the first non-binary person to state congress in the country, Mauree Turner. Mauree is also the first Muslim elected to state legislature in Oklahoma. They are seeking to drive the conversation about “what inclusive representation looks like”.[17]

Florida elected the first openly queer African-American woman to their state congress, Michele Rayner-Goolsby. Michele ran unopposed after winning the highly competitive Democratic primary.[18]

New Zealand’s Firsts

These elections come on the heels of New Zealand naming their ministers and cabinet including two trail-blazing appointments.

Nanaia Mahuta became the first ever female Minister of Foreign Affairs in New Zealand. Any long-time reader of ours will know the importance of women having a voice in international diplomacy and Nanaia’s appointment is no exception. She will bring new insights to a role which was most recently filled by Winston Peters.[19] She is also the first woman in parliament to wear a moko kauae.[20]

A new ministerial role for Family and Sexual Violence prevention has been created by this government, and awarded to Greens co-leader, Marama Davidson. This portfolio highlights the epidemic of family and sexual violence in this country which predominantly affects women and disproportionately impacts Māori women. The role and appointment were celebrated by Women’s Refuge and described as “a turning point in history”.[21]

Both the New Zealand Parliament and the United States congress now have the highest gender diversity in their history. New Zealand has 58/120 female MPs.[22] This government also has the highest percentage of LGBTQIA+ representation at around 10%.[23] The United States has elected 135/435 congresswomen, which is up from 127 in the 2018 midterm election.[24]

Why does representation matter?

The importance of these historic firsts should not be understated. Misogyny is still rife in the world, including the United States and New Zealand, and women remain under-represented in many positions of power. But more women and gender diverse people at the table, means more people working on dismantling the systems that harm marginalised groups. As more diverse perspectives are taken into account, policies that truly serve everyone are more likely to be achieved. Female and gender diverse representation is the cornerstone of a more equal future.

Increased representation also creates role models which inspire younger generations to pursue positions of power. These appointments may inspire future candidates to aspire to higher and higher positions. If a woman can serve in congress, why not the senate; if the senate, why not governor; if governor, why not vice-president; and if vice-president, why not president? As Kamala Harris said about her new role as vice-president, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last”.[25]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cori_Bush

[2] https://coribush.org/about

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/04/us/politics/election-firsts-winners.html

[4] https://stricklandforwashington.com/priorities/

[5] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/new-mexico-first-state-elect-all-women-of-color-house-of-representatives/

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/04/us/politics/election-firsts-winners.html

[7] https://www.hrc.org/about/staff

[8] https://www.hrc.org/about

[9] https://sarahmcbride.com/sarahs-values/

[10] https://www.taylorsmallvt.com/issues

[11] https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/transgender-representation-nearly-double-state-legislatures-n1246426

[12] https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/transgender-representation-nearly-double-state-legislatures-n1246426

[13] https://www.byersforkansas.com/about

[14] https://www.byersforkansas.com/issues

[15] https://thegavoice.com/news/kim-jackson-becomes-first-lgbtq-state-senator-in-georgia/

[16] https://victoryfund.org/news/kim-jackson-to-become-first-lgbtq-georgia-state-senator-one-of-few-black-lgbtq-women-senators-in-the-country/

[17] https://www.maureeturner.com/community-issues

[18] https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2020/11/04/shevrin-jones-michele-rayner-goolsby-florida-black-queer-lawmakers/

[19] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/07/intelligent-clear-and-astute-what-new-zealanders-say-about-nanaia-mahuta

[20] https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2020/11/helen-clark-m-ori-council-denounce-portrayal-of-foreign-minister-nanaia-mahuta-in-international-press.html

[21] https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2020/11/women-s-refuge-thrilled-at-marama-davidson-new-role-as-minister-for-the-prevention-of-family-and-sexual-violence.html

[22] https://www.parliament.nz/en/mps-and-electorates/members-of-parliament/

[23] https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/428800/new-zealand-s-new-lgbtq-mps-make-parliament-most-rainbow-in-world

[24] https://www.nbcnews.com/know-your-value/feature/more-women-ever-were-just-elected-congress-here-are-their-ncna1246757

[25] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXnePLTILY4

Image by Wikipedia Commons.

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