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New Congress

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, second from left, poses during a ceremonial swearing-in with Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 3 during the opening session of the 116th Congress.

It’s amazing what revelations simple arithmetic can produce.

Consider, for example, counting the number of men and women now in Iowa’s congressional delegation.

For the first time in the state’s history, the election of Democrats Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne to the U.S. House of Representatives, joining Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, means Iowa has an equal number of women and men in each chamber of Congress — those three women, and three men – U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley and U.S. Reps. Dave Lobesack and Steve King.

This significance of this milestone seemed to receive scant public attention following the Nov. 7 general election — except for a line in a press release from the nonprofit organization 50-50 in 2020, a group focused on helping get more women represented in elected office and appointed boards and commissions.

Perhaps the major political parties were too busy counting their own wins and losses to hail an accomplishment it took both of them to achieve. But it is something that should be celebrated.

This is not only a first for Iowa, but something that has not been accomplished much elsewhere in the country. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, there are a handful of other states in which women make up 50 percent or better of the membership in Congress. They include Maine, New Hampshire, Nevada and Washington. In total, women still make up less than 20 percent of the total membership of both houses of Congress.

Iowa’s achievement is even more historically and symbolically significant in that it falls on the 100th anniversary of Congress approving and presenting the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote, to the states for ratification. Iowa became the 10th state to ratify the amendment on July 2, 1919. It became the law of the land when No. 36, Tennessee, ratified it in October 1920, giving the amendment a three-fourths majority of the states at that time.

A hundred years might seem a long time, until it is viewed in historical perspective. Our country is 243 years old. Women have had the vote less than half of that time. It took less time, though at a bloody price, to abolish slavery in the United States than it did for women to win the vote.

It is even more humbling personally when I view this fact in the context of my own family. Both my grandmothers and most of my aunts were born without the right to vote in this country. My mother was born just two years after women won the vote.

My paternal grandmother, who farmed with my grandfather and raised eight children, was only able to cast her first ballot in an election at age 40. My sister, my female school classmates and many of the women whom I’ve had the privilege to work alongside, were born less than 40 years after women won the right to vote.

Many of later generations may think about our right to vote no more than they contemplate the air they breathe. But it is almost as precious as that very air — the most basic power, right and duty of citizens in our democracy.

And today, without the 19th Amendment, more than half our population would be denied the right to vote. It is an achievement which stands alongside the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.

Just as the significance of the 19th Amendment cannot be understated, neither can the achievement of the three Iowa women who now represent our state in Congress — and the century of strong shoulders of women and men they stand upon to be there.

It is not a victory for one person or party. It’s a victory for what this country is supposed to be about — liberty and justice for all.

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Pat Kinney is a former reporter and editor at the Courier. He is now Korean War content development specialist at the Grout Museum and Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in Waterloo.

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