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Something to Celebrate: Six Women Who Won Historic Firsts

A woman was not elected to the highest office. But other women who ran on platforms of equality and progressive reform did win.

The election results took us by surprise. Like so many others in the media, we were preparing to celebrate the historic election of the nation’s first female president. Despite the upset, one loss does not devalue another victory. Across the country, women of various backgrounds shattered the status quo. They ran on platforms of equality and progressive reform against long-time incumbents in historically conservative states. And they won.

Here are the stories of the women behind some of the election’s notable firsts.

Kate Brown, (D-Oregon) First Elected Openly LGBTQ Governor

Kate Brown has been serving as Oregon’s governor since her successor resigned amid a corruption scandal in 2015. Yesterday, she was elected by the state to serve the next two years of what would have been the rest of former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s term.

Brown — previously Oregon’s secretary of state and majority leader of the state Senate — is the first openly LGBTQ candidate to win a gubernatorial election. She has been married to her husband since 1997, but was outed as bisexual years before that. She has since embraced her identity publicly, taking opportunities to speak about her sexuality.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” she told the Washington Blade. “If I can be a role model for one young person that decides their life is worth living because there’s someone like them in the world, it’s worth it.”

Brown is also a survivor of domestic violence. She has been vocal against Donald Trump’s comments about women, which she said in the same interview were “re-traumatizing” for her.

As governor, Brown has already put billions of dollars into Oregon’s education budget and increased the minimum wage. Next, she hopes to introduce gun safety legislation — especially on campuses — increase high school graduation rates, and pass protections for LGBTQ people.

Tammy Duckworth, (D-Illinois) First Thai American Woman Elected to Senate

Like most of the women on this list, Tammy Duckworth has been making history for years. Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2013, she became the first female veteran, the first disabled woman, and the first Asian American woman to represent Illinois.

Born in Bangkok to a World War II veteran father and a Thai mother, Duckworth grew up in various places throughout Asia, where her father worked for the U.N. and numerous corporations. She moved to Hawai’i at age 16, where she also attended college, before earning her master’s in Washington, D.C.

She joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in 1990 and later served as a helicopter pilot because it offered combat opportunity. In 2004, Duckworth was deployed to Iraq, and lost both her legs after her helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. She has since advocated for veterans, and recently denounced Donald Trump’s comments about wanting a Purple Heart.

Each year, Duckworth and her former crewmates gather to celebrate their survival in the 2004 crash. “You can choose to spend the day of your injury in a dark room feeling sorry for yourself or you can choose to get together with the buddies who saved your life, and I choose the latter,” she told the Chicago Tribune.

In office, she has promised to fight for civil rights for LGBTQ people, protection of the Affordable Care Act, basic assistance for people facing poverty, and a reduction in gun violence.

Kamala Harris, (D-California) First Biracial and Indian American Woman Elected to Senate

In 2010, Kamala Harris made history as the first female, first Black, and first Asian American to be elected attorney general of California. Now, she will be the first Indian American and first biracial female senator.

Harris’ upbringing was a multicultural one. Born to an Indian mother and Jamaican father in California, she attended Howard University and received a law degree from the University of California.

Harris earned President Obama’s endorsement for the Senate, and was also speculated to be a potential replacement for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, though she has said she had no interest in filling the position.

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, Harris discussed racial discrimination among prosecutors, saying: “They were talking about how these young people were dressed, what corner they were hanging out on, and the music they were listening to. I remember saying: ‘Hey, guys, you know what? Members of my family dress that way. I grew up with people who live on that corner.'”

Harris has been committed to making higher education more accessible and expanding voting rights. She is also expected to work toward mending the criminal justice system, an issue she has focused on for much of her career.

Pramila Jayapal, (D-Washington) First Indian American Woman Elected to the US House of Representatives

Soon representing Washington’s 7th congressional district, Pramila Jayapal is the first Indian American woman elected to U.S. Congress. Born in India and raised in Indonesia and Singapore, she came to the United States at age 16 to attend Georgetown University.

Jayapal has been involved in Seattle-area civil rights activism for more than 20 years. She founded and served as executive director of pro-immigration advocacy group OneAmerica until 2012. In 2013, she was given the White House’s Champion of Change award.

She began her political career as a Democrat in 2014 when she ran for state Senate and won. After two years in state office, she decided to run for Congress and went on to a significant victory in the primary over her opponent, Democrat Brady Walkinshaw.

Jayapal’s progressive beliefs align with Bernie Sanders, who endorsed her in April. In a statement addressing the 1 percent, Jayapal said: “What Congress needs is a progressive voice who is unafraid to take on these powerful interests.”

Catherine Cortez Masto, (D-Nevada) First Latina Elected to Senate and First Female Senator From Nevada

Catherine Cortez Masto is both the first Latina and woman to enter the Senate from Nevada. The granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant, Cortez Masto was born and raised in the state.

Before being elected as Democratic senator, she served two terms as attorney general, during which time she worked to provide financial aid for students and strengthen laws preventing sex trafficking.

In her race for the Senate, Cortez Masto ran against Joe Heck to fill Democratic minority leader Sen. Harry Reid’s seat in Congress — one of the most competitive Senate elections among a total of 34.

“My grandfather came from Mexico for the very reason that many other families have come here, which is an opportunity to succeed, to make sure your kids have more than what you had,” she told Mother Jones. “Because of his hard work and courage and the hard work of my parents, my sister and I are the first to graduate from college … That, to me, is the American Dream.”

As senator, she has said she will work to overturn Citizens United, protect access to Medicare and Social Security, raise the minimum wage, and craft comprehensive immigration reform.

Ilhan Omar, (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party-Minnesota) First Somali American Muslim Woman Elected to State Legislature

Ilhan Omar is the first Somali American woman to be elected to public office in the United States. After fleeing the Somali Civil War with her family at age 8 in the early 1990s, Omar spent the next four years in a Kenyan refugee camp.

In 1995, Omar’s family arrived in Virginia and eventually resettled in Minneapolis, home to the nation’s largest population with Somali ancestry. She studied political science and international studies at North Dakota State University.

Omar has worked at the Minnesota Department of Education and as a senior policy aide for a Minneapolis senior council member. In August, she beat a 22-term incumbent by more than 10 percent of the primary vote.

She has said she believes it’s time leaders of her district truly represent the community’s diverse history, one that includes immigration. But her success hasn’t come from just popularity among Somalis.

“That ability to create connections with people who don’t look like me, who don’t share my identities, has sort of been the success of my campaign,” she told the digital media company Refinery29.

In office, Omar is expected to focus on closing the opportunity gap by supporting universal pre-kindergarten, hiring more teachers of color, and fighting for better rights for immigrants and LGBTQ people. She is also committed to making higher education more affordable and ensuring clean air and water.