Meet the 116th United States Congress

Image Source:  Olivia Morris

Image Source: Olivia Morris

There are 102 women swearing in to the House of Representatives this week. A record-breaking number that signals the beginning of something long overdue. As we get to know these women over the next few years through their policies, it’s also important that we understand their roots. From escaping civil war to growing up in single mother household in Chicago, all of these inspirational women have diverse origin stories and an even more exciting journey ahead as members of the 116th United States Congress. 

Ilhan Omar

District: Minnesota’s 5 Congressional District

Party: Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party

Ilhan Omar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1981. The youngest of 7 siblings, when she was just 3 years old her mother passed away and she was then raised by her father and grandfather. When the Somalia civil war broke out, she and her family moved into the Utanga camp for refugees outside of Mombasa, Kenya. Living conditions in the camp were poor but Omar and her family remained hopeful as they waited for sponsorship to the United States.

At age 12, Omar and her family landed in New York City where Omar said she “felt cheated” by the cityscape that contrasted with the white picket fence she had imagined came with every American home. Eventually, the family moved to Arlington, Virginia and then on to Minneapolis, Minnesota where she formally began her education.

Omar was first introduced to politics, and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, when she accompanied her grandfather to a DFL precinct caucus to act as his interpreter. At a very young age, Omar recognized the importance of Democracy, and pursued political science at North Dakota State. After she graduated, Omar remained politically active serving as campaign manager to City Councilmen, Andrew Johnson, and became the Director of Policy & Initiatives of the Women Organizing Women Networks in Minneapolis, a group that encourages women from East Africa to participate in civic and leadership roles in their communities.

Omar is progressive and believes in free tuition for students whose parents makes less than $125,000 a year. She is also an outspoken supporter of the LGBTQIA+ community and Medicare-for-all. She is the first Somali American elected to the US Congress and won her congressional seat by the highest percentage of votes for any female candidate in Minnesota state history.

Ayanna Pressley

District: Massachusetts’ 7 Congressional District

Party: Democratic Party

Ayanna Pressley was raised in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother held multiple jobs to support her family and send Pressley to a prestigious private school in Lincoln Park. While in school, Pressley demonstrated an aptitude for her studies and extra-curricular activities participating in cheerleading, modeling, and competitive debate. Ayanna pursued a degree at Boston University, but left after two years to help her mother after she lost her job.

During her time at BU, she held a seat as a student senator and the student president of her college. Her first exposure to politics occurred when she organized a Martin Luther King Day celebration and reached out to Joseph P. Kennedy II to attend. Ever dedicated to public service, Pressley asked Kennedy for an internship after the success of the event and earned a position, after a year, as a paid staffer. When she left Kennedy’s office, she lived paycheck to paycheck for a while, eventually landing herself a job on John F. Kerry’s reelection campaign. She worked for Kerry for 13 years and rose the ranks to political director.

As a sexual assault survivor, Pressley has been outspoken about her aspirations to end sexual violence as part of her work in Congress. She stands with Colin Kaepernick and the “take a knee” initiative that brings attention to police brutality. Pressley is the first African American woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress. 

Sharice Davids

District: Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District

Party: Democratic Party

Sharice Davids grew up as a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and was raised by a single mother who served in the United States Army. She graduated from University of Missouri-Kansas City with a degree in business administration and went on to pursue a Juris Doctor degree in law from Cornell. Upon completing her studies, she began working with Native American reservations around the country, establishing community building programs and assisting with reservation economics. In 2016, she was accepted into the prestigious White House Fellowship Program that offers men and women firsthand experience working within the highest level of the Federal Government.

While Davids is nationally known for her work with Native American communities, she is also a celebrated ex-amateur MMA fighter with an impressive 5-1 win-loss record. She became a professional fighter for a brief time, but ultimately devoted herself to politics in 2016 when she witnessed the Obama-Trump transition during her time as a White House Fellow.

Sharice is one of four Native Americans entering the House this January. She is also the first openly gay member of Congress and is a strong proponent of LGBT rights, a cause that has been greatly impacted in her state, Kansas, by anti-LGBT legislation. Sharice supports single payer health care and has been very vocal, throughout her campaign, about increasing teachers’ wages.

Rashida Tlaib

District: Michigan’s 13 Congressional District

Party: Democratic Party

As perhaps one of the more seasoned politicians in our list, Rashida Tlaib also has one of the most interesting origin stories. Tlaib was born to fourteen brothers and sisters. Her parents were working-class Palestinian immigrants and often relied on Tlaib’s help to raise her younger siblings. Her family resided in Detroit all through her childhood, relying partially on welfare when her father’s assembly line job with Ford Motor Company couldn’t make ends meet.

Tlaib earned a B.A. in political science from Wayne State University, proceeded by a law degree from Cooley Law School in Lansing, MI. She began her career in politics in 2004 as an intern for State Representative, Steven Tobocman. In 2008, after working 4 years on Tobocman’s staff, Tlaib herself ran for Tobocman’s seat as his term limit reached its end. She won the 12th Congressional District in Michigan in an overwhelming majority with 90% of the vote.

After her tenure in the Michigan House of Representatives, Tlaib began her campaign for a congressional seat within the US House. Tlaib won in her district unopposed and became the first Palestinian-American woman elected to Congress. She is a progressive Democrat and aligns herself with the Socialist Democratic Party. 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

District: New York’s 14 Congressional District

Party: Democratic Party

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has proven herself a formidable force since her win of New York’s 14th Congressional district in the general election. Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents. In school, she excelled in science coming in second place in the International Science and Engineering Fair. She attended Boston University where she studied international relations while simultaneously working at the immigration office of Senator, Ted Kennedy.

After her father passed away without a will, Ocasio-Cortez became heavily involved with attorneys to settle his estate. The battle over her father's will ultimately resulted in financial troubles for her and her mother. They fought to save their house from foreclosure and Cortez became a bartender and a teacher to help pay the bills. This entrepreneurial spirit and bootstraps mentality helped her become an organizer on Bernie Sander’s campaign where she became a member of the Democratic Socialist Party.

Despite facing a significant financial disadvantage, Ocasio-Cortez challenged the Democratic Caucus Chair, Joe Crowley--the first to do so since 2004. While Ocasio-Cortez spent $194,000 on her campaign, her seasoned opponent, Crowley, spent nearly $3.4 million on his. Crowley's defeat, and Cortez's Congressional win was an upset that public figures like Bernie Sanders and Noam Chomsky noted held political significance. 

As a progressive member of the House, Cortez supports free tuition for colleges and public schools. Most notably however, is perhaps her outspoken stance on climate change and participation in an initiative to transition the United States power grid to run on 100% renewable-energy by 2035. 

Read the whole piece at The Fold.