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Women veterans in the US Congress

Image credit: Linda Mozuku (Wikimedia Commons: Creative Commons)

Last November’s US midterm elections were defined by the record-number of women candidates whose electoral victories were crucial in securing Democratic control of the House of Representatives.

But lesser known is the subset of these women with professional backgrounds in national security and the military. This small but growing cohort is set to play a crucial role in shaping US foreign and defence policy at a critical juncture for how America defines its role in the world.

The 116th Congress has hit an historic high-point for female veteran representation – a major achievement when overall levels of former service members in Congress are on the decline. The newly-elected class of women veterans have joined Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI - pictured above) on Capitol Hill after a total of fourteen were on the ballot in late 2018.

These freshmen include former Navy helicopter pilot Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), former Air Force Reserve captain Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-PA), and retired Navy commander Rep. Elaine Luria, who won a tight race against incumbent and former Navy SEAL Scott Taylor in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District. They’re joined by two members of the intelligence community: Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), who worked for the CIA for eight years, and Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), an analyst who completed three tours of Iraq and served as Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs during the Obama administration.

All five women flipped their districts from Republican to Democratic control.

House leadership has acknowledged the subject-matter expertise that this core groups brings to Congress, with all women securing one or more spots on key national security committees including Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security. Arizona Senator and Air Force veteran Martha McSally – a Republican appointed to serve out the remainder of the late John McCain’s term – also now sits on the Armed Services Committee in the Senate.

Already these women are making their voices heard and seeking institutional change.

Senator McSally – the first woman to fly in combat for the United States – recently told a subcommittee hearing into sexual assault in the military that she was raped by a superior office while serving in the Air Force. Reflecting on the traumatic experience and lack of organisational support that she received upon disclosing her assault, she underlined the pressing need for cultural reform in the armed services.

While a shifting balance of bureaucratic power has strengthened executive-led foreign policy in recent decades, the legislature has retained its key powers of appropriations and oversight, as well as the ability to authorise military force and ratify treaties.

This means that the new women of Congressional committees will have an important role in influencing Trump administration policy on critical national security issues, ranging from nuclear diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula and the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, to funding and oversight for the Department of Defense.

Newly-elected representative Elaine Luria has already drawn on her 20-year career in the US Navy to question top Navy leaders about the readiness of naval surface forces, pointing out that much-needed operational reform has been sluggish. Meanwhile, Rep. Elissa Slotkin has called for Congress to update the Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that underpins US military deployment in at least nineteen countries.

Not only will committee membership allow these women to influence policy debate, it will also heighten their position in America’s national security architecture – creating role models for the next generation of emerging leaders and ensuring that a gender perspective is considered in foreign policy outcomes.

This is crucial. The #metoo era has already highlighted why diversity among decision-makers is so vital in combatting discrimination and abuses of power. In an interview with USA Today, Rebecca “Mikie” Sherrill reflected that: ‘too many times in the service, we don’t protect our women service members, which is something that I think just shows how important it is to have women at the table in Congress’.

But it’s not only about creating better outcomes for women.

Many of these new recruits have classified their election to public office as a continuation of their service to country and stressed a desire for more bipartisanship in US Congress. In an era where the military enjoys the highest level of American public confidence – and Congress the least – electing more women to the halls of power may well contribute to a more positive perception of the workings on Capitol Hill.

American efforts to promote women’s participation in peace and security abroad must also be matched at home. While breaking into the largely white and male-dominated world of national security remains an ongoing challenge, recognising and championing the contribution of women in the field is an important first step.

Matilda Steward is a Research Associate in the Foreign Policy and Defence Program at the United States Studies Centre.

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