By Nada Ahmed, Policy Intern
Shirley Chisholm once said, “At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.” As the 116th Congress begins its legislative work, the new freshman class of women has already demonstrated their capabilities as the next generation of political leaders in America. Despite the short time this Congress has been active, they have already made history. A record number of women are serving in this Congress, with 102 women in the House of Representatives and 25 women in the Senate. There is also more LGBTQ+ representation than ever before, demonstrated by Kyrsten Sinema being the first openly bisexual member of Congress. It is the first time Muslim and Native American women have been elected to the House of Representatives, making Congress more representative of the people it is meant to serve. And for the first time in history, there is a pro-choice majority in the House.
As Congress becomes younger, more diverse, and more inclusive of women in political positions, there is hope for policies and progress related to women’s health. Female political leaders are more effective at creating and leading beneficial policies that directly relate to the health, wellbeing, and daily lives of women.
Data demonstrates that women make effective leaders and politicians, focusing on issues that are representative of the concerns of their constituents and being more likely to champion legislation that positively impacts women’s health and rights. This is all in spite of the obstacles and discrimination women must overcome to be in positions of power. According to the World Bank, when women are in political positions, policies become representative of their needs and their families’ needs.
Studies have found that in political leadership positions, women support and allocate budgets that focus on social issues, resulting in a higher quality of education, health, and infrastructure projects, as well as a boost in women’s standard of living. Another researcher found the movement of women into U.S. state legislatures over the past quarter century was responsible for a 15 percent increase in state health spending, across party lines. This gives credence to theories of a "woman" effect on legislative priorities, yielding more appropriately budgeted public funds to meet the needs of the entire population, rather than simply a fraction. Even within the first two months of the 116th Congress’s work, there have already been steps taken to schedule first-time hearings on Medicare for all, a development that would include the promotion of reproductive health.
Historically, women have consistently led efforts related to their own health and have encouraged groundbreaking achievements for future generations. January 22 marked the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a decision that was largely due to female advocates who led campaigns to legalize abortion. The efforts of these advocates paid off in dividends, securing their own rights and paving the way for future generations of women and girls. But the women’s rights movement — in the U.S. and around the world — is far from finished. Female members of Congress are making many women across America optimistic that they can accomplish the same as their predecessors.
The benefits of having women in power isn’t specific to the United States. For example, a study found that in Scandinavian countries — where women are well represented in positions of power — public budgets and policies reflect the global interests of girls and women. To determine the potential significance of women’s representation in improving the delivery of health services, the Institute of Labor Economics researched tens of thousands of births and mothers in 16 states across India. They found that a 10 percent increase in political participation by women raised the probability that their village had a primary health center, a community health center, a government dispensary, and a government hospital.
More often than not, oppressive and poorly considered policies disproportionately affect women, especially those of color, and make it more difficult to address not only women-specific needs, but also needs that come with societally imposed expectations of their role in the family. One example is the detrimental Mexico City policy — also known as the Global Gag Rule — which has now been in effect for two years since the anniversary on January 23. The policy prohibits foreign organizations from receiving global health assistance if they provide, educate, advocate around, or counsel on abortion services as a method of family planning, even if these organizations use their own non-U.S. funds to do so. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) recently introduced vital legislation in Congress to end the Global Gag Rule, demonstrating that the women in Congress are standing up for women worldwide.
At a time when there is more female and pro-choice representation in Congress than ever before, U.S. citizens have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to ensure their representatives are advocating for the needs of the women they represent, as well as the women around the world who are directly impacted by U.S. foreign policy. Our global health assistance can be a powerful determinant of women’s health care and access to services, and yet the women most directly affected by these decisions are often neglected in the decision-making process. When Congress introduces dangerous policies that harm women’s health globally, we as constituents, and advocates, must hold them accountable.
You can view your representative and senators’ voting record online and contact them through the following Senate and House pages to express your views on sexual and reproductive health and rights. Upholding and guaranteeing these rights is a key component of addressing women’s health on a global scale, and we need to make sure Congress is held accountable.
Voting for women to occupy political seats allows policies to be introduced that benefit people in the United States, and around the world. Women need to be at the forefront of the conversation, as decision makers continue to put sexual and reproductive rights on the table, to ensure that we progress toward equality.