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Women’s Rights Predicted to Advance in New US Congress


At least 100 women will hold nearly one-quarter of the seats in the US House of Representatives as of January 2019. That could mean more support for women’s rights, including from a New York Democrat, Eliot Engel. Here, protesters in Seattle, 2018.

The results of the recent United States elections raise hopes for women’s rights. At least 100 women, among them young liberals who defeated incumbent men, will hold nearly a quarter of the seats in the House of Representatives when a new Congress opens in early January. Two women are Muslim-American and two are Native Americans, a first.

If political predictions are accurate, women aiming to challenge Trump administration policies on issues affecting women around the world, like reproductive rights (including access to abortion), will have strong support from the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is a New York Democrat, Eliot Engel, a recipient of numerous awards for his stands on human rights.

Decisions on committee chairs are expected to be made in coming weeks, so that House leadership under the Democrats will be in place when the new Congress assembles after decisively overturning Republican control, a serious blow to Donald Trump. The Democrats will have the power to open investigations into his administration and exert influence over financial legislation and the national budget.

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In October, Engel, whose economically mixed constituency includes parts of the New York City borough of the Bronx and neighboring Westchester County, received a score of 100 on the Human Rights Campaign LGBTQ Scorecard. “I’m proud to stand on the right side of history,” he said when the tally of his actions in Congress on behalf of LGBTQ people was announced. “LGBTQ rights are under attack by a Trump administration that reflects only the most divisive social views.”

In the past, he has been commended by Planned Parenthood as “one of the most internationally minded members of Congress,” who travels abroad often to assess women’s needs.

In 2016, the Westchester Coalition for Legal Abortion gave him its Defender of Women’s Rights award. He has voted against Trump efforts to limit contraceptive coverage in health programs and has been an active member of the House of Representatives Pro-Choice Caucus.

The independent research and advocacy organization PAI, based in Washington, released an upbeat statement on Nov. 9, after studying US midterm election results with a focus on reproductive rights and health.

“Regardless of the final headcount of members’ positions on the substance of FP/RH [family planning/reproductive health] issues, the Democrats gaining majority control of the House will have game-changing effects,” PAI concluded. “This enables Democrats to set the legislative agenda for the chamber and to lead the key authorizing and appropriations committees and subcommittees with jurisdiction over international FP/RH programs, allowing meaningful oversight to be conducted on harmful Trump-Pence administration actions for the first time since the inauguration.”

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PAI noted that in the Senate, the upper house of the US Congress, which will still be in Republican hands, 46 senators are likely to vote positively on reproductive rights issues, with 48 likely to vote against. The other six missing senators in a chamber of 100 members are either swing votes or were winners of elections being disputed or subjected to recounts at the time PAI made its calculations. The organization said that the final “best scenario” would be a split of 49 supporting family planning and reproductive health measures and 51 in opposition, with the hope that some Republicans would cross party lines in support.

Twenty-five women will hold Senate seats in 2019, including 14 elected or re-elected in November. Senators are elected to six-year terms, with a third of them up for re-election every two years, to preserve continuity in the chamber. In the House of Representatives, members are elected or re-elected to two-year terms. This means that while Democrats now control the House, they must act decisively in the next two years to retain their majority in the next elections, in 2020, which is also a presidential election year.


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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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