The unexpected victory of Donald Trump and news that Republicans will retain Senate control overshadowed historic gains Tuesday night.
For the first time, three minority women were elected to the Senate, bringing to four the number of female minority senators, more than any previous Senate class.
Kamala Harris is both California’s first African-American and first Indian-American senator. Catherine Cortez Masto is Nevada’s first female senator and the first Latina senator. And Tammy Duckworth of Illinois is the first Thai-American elected to the Senate. Her father was a U.S. Marine and her mother is from Thailand.
Women now represent 21 percent of the Senate, a 1-point increase from the last election cycle, said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.
The newly elected women reflect the diversity in the Senate overall, Lawless said. However, she said, it will be very hard for them to change how the government works.
“All three are Democrats, and the Democrats became even less powerful last night,” Lawless said. “Not only do the Republicans have control, they have unified government.”
She said it would be “virtually impossible” for both women and men in the Democratic party to try to enact change.
While the number of female candidates has increased over the years, Lawless said women are still far less likely to run in the first place.
Democrats elect more female candidates than Republicans, Lawless said. In the 114th Congress, there are six female Republican senators and 14 female Democratic senators. The margin is even bigger in the U.S. House, with 62 female Democrats and 22 female Republicans.
“When we think about getting a lot more women elected it’s hard when only one party is fielding substantial increases in the number of candidates,” Lawless said.
What happened to Hillary Clinton in the presidential race could also have an impact, she said.
“I worry that the sexism that potential candidates saw in the presidential race will affect the overall assumptions about what the political landscape looks like and it will depress their ambition to run for office.” Lawless said.
Harris and Duckworth did not mention the diversity impact in victory statements posted on Facebook. They focused on thanking their supporters and getting to work in the Senate.
“I intend to fight to make sure all of our communities are stronger,” Harris wrote. “Our ideals are at stake and we have to fight for who we are. I could not do any of this without you. Thank you for your support. Let’s get to work!”
Duckworth thanked her supporters for standing by her, like her “buddies” did in Iraq after a rocket-propelled grenade hit the cockpit of the helicopter she was copiloting. She lost her legs due to injuries she sustained.
“This nation didn’t give up on me when I was at my lowest moment, and I believe in an America that doesn’t give up on anyone who hasn’t given up on themselves,” Duckworth posted. “This victory would not have been possible without your support — thank you.”