When California’s Nancy Pelosi, the first-ever female Speaker of the House, held aloft the wooden gavel for a second run at the position on Thursday, becoming the first person in more than 60 years to reclaim the speakership after losing it, she wasn’t the only woman making American political history—or herstory, as some might choose to call it.
A record-breaking 102 women now serve in the House of Representatives, accounting for 23.4 percent of the chamber’s voting members. More than a third of them are freshmen, meaning they won their seats for the first time in November’s midterms. Last week’s swearing-in also saw five new women join the Senate, more than compensating for the two female senators who lost their reelections.
At a time when the country is perhaps more divided than ever—ideologically, at least—the House also features a younger and more diverse Democratic majority. Certainly, there was a palpable change in the visual topography of a chamber that for centuries had skewed white and male.
It’s true that in the sea of dark, stuffy suits, the women were impossible to miss. Although media focus on women’s clothing can make us cringe, the incoming officials used their attire as tools to subvert the status quo and deploy a vision of what diversity in power looks like. Far from being frivolous, their garments signaled the change that is on the horizon.
Many of the freshman class opted to be sworn in wearing clothing that reflected their cultural traditions. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the first Palestinian American woman to be elected to Congress, wore a richly embroidered burgundy thobe, or Palestinian gown. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, one of the first Native American women in the chamber, chose a pueblo dress, silver and turquoise jewelry, and moccasins. Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American and, together with Tlaib, the first Muslim women, draped herself in a hijab, or Muslim headscarf.
Omar herself was instrumental in overturning a 181-year-old rule that banned hats and head coverings in the House. As of January 3, religious headwear such as hijabs and yarmulkes are permitted, along with head coverings for illness and hair loss.
Replying to complaints by a pastor about the change, Omar quipped on Twitter that “the floor of Congress is going to look like America.” This wasn’t the “last ban [she was] going to work to lift,” either, she added.
New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the youngest members of Congress paid homage to the women’s suffrage movement by donning a crisp white pantsuit, plus hoop earrings and a bold red lip in honor of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, contrary to advise to stick with something neutral, brandished crimson nails at her 2009 confirmation hearing.
“Next time someone tells Bronx girls to take off their hoops, they can just say they’re dressing like a Congresswoman,” Oscaio-Cortez wrote on Twitter.
Even the older guard got into the act. Returning California representative Barbara Lee, who is African American, sported a jacket made from West Ghanaian kente cloth. Pelosi wore a bright fuchsia dress that Robin Givhan of the Washington Post described as the “plumage of a brazen bird, one with the audacity not just to fly with the flock but to lead it.”
Indeed, for all the talking their ensembles did, the women who took office were equally vociferous in their aspirations for change and progress. Tlaib, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, has thrown her support behind policies like a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for all, and debt-free college. Ocasio-Cortez wants to impose a 70 percent marginal tax rates on incomes exceeding $10 million. Haaland has sworn to draw attention to the issue of missing and murdered Native women while standing up to the fossil-fuel industry.
Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman representative from Massachusetts, is co-sponsoring a bill to repeal a fiscal measure known as “pay as you go,” which requires all new spending to be offset by equal cuts or tax increases so as not to increase the budget deficit. This can throttle progressive policies, its detractors have said.
“I was sent to Congress to be bold, unbought and unbossed,” Pressley affirmed on Twitter. Looking around, it’s obvious that she’s in good company.