Women will be the majority of Iowa’s congressional delegation in this new year. Mary Ellen Miller is the former executive director of “50-50 in 2020” — a group formed in 2010 to encourage women to run for office.
“The reason we set up the program to recruit and train women was because Iowa was in a unique situation as being only one of only two states that had never sent a woman to Congress or elected a woman governor and in 10 years that has all been turned around,” Miller says. “I’m just, of course, very proud of our work, but also amazed at how quickly it has all changed.”
Members of the U.S. House and Senate will be sworn into office on Sunday. Congresswoman Cindy Axne of West Des Moines then will be the dean of the Iowa delegation in the U.S. House, where she’ll be joined by two other women and a man. Joni Ernst will be sworn in for a second term in the U.S. Senate, too, so women will hold four of the six seats in Iowa’s D.C. delegation.
50-50 in 2020 aimed to have Iowa women serving in at least half of elected roles and disbanded last January. Miller says there are now several organizations doing the same work of encouraging and coaching women to run for office.
“Very proud of our work, very excited,” Miller says, “but also kind of blown away by the speed at which the whole landscape reversed itself.”
Miller says the landscape has shifted partly due to generational change.
“If you look at the age of women running, they’re much younger. They grew up in a time of post women’s liberation, post-birth control,” Miller says. “They’re of an age that really are not intimidated by the customs, so to speak, of our public servant environment. It was always the ‘good old boys’ club’ and they just don’t have any patience with that.”
Another contributing factor is the increasing numbers of women running for office today compared to a decade ago.
“Once women see other women running then they go, ‘Oh, I can do that,’ but at the beginning, they just didn’t have those role models,” Miller says. “They didn’t have those images that looked like them.”
Miller predicts the next shift in Iowa and elsewhere in the coming decade will be toward electing more people of color and new American citizens who become active in the political process.