WASHINGTON — Rep. Linda Sanchez edged Rep. Barbara Lee Wednesday in a race for the vice chairwoman in the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives. Usually a little watched contest, this one was different for its historic implications.

No matter who won, an elected woman of color from California would join the Democratic hierarchy for the first time. In the end, Rep. Linda Sanchez, a Hispanic, took the spot in a 98-96 vote.

“I am honored to have the confidence and support of my colleagues, and I look forward to working on behalf of the entire Democratic Caucus,” Sanchez, 47, said in a statement. “Every day I will do everything I can to strengthen our Democratic Caucus and put us in the strongest position. Let’s get to work.”


Graphic by Ross Krasner

This milestone arrives at a time when four minority women are set to join the Senate for the first time in the chamber’s history. A total of 66 women of color have served in Congress, starting with Patsy Mink, an Asian-Pacific Democrat from Hawaii in 1965.

The first black woman in Congress, the late Shirley Chisholm of D-N.Y., was sworn in four years later. Both Mink and Chisholm held the caucus secretary position, which preceded the office of Vice-Chair. Until the elimination of the secretary slot in 1987, the office was reserved for a female member of the House.

In 1989 the late Bill Gray, the Democratic caucus chairman, became the first African-American man to be elected Democratic Whip. At the time the Democrats were in the majority, making him the third-ranking Democrat in the House, and the first person of color in the caucus leadership.

Feminists have praised the growing number of minority women on Capitol Hill but are quick to note that challenges still exist.

During a debate during the Illinois Senate campaign this year, Sen. Mark Kirk questioned the heritage of Rep. Tammy Duckworth – an armed forces veteran whose family’s history of military service was a key campaign point for her.

“I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington,” Kirk said. Duckworth was born in Bangkok to a mother of Chinese heritage, while the lineage of American military service dates back to the Revolutionary War on her father’s side.

Sen.-elect Duckworth will move from the House of Representatives to the Senate in January, making her the first Thai-American in that chamber. Eight newly elected women of color will make this Congress the most diverse in history, totaling 35 Democratic and three Republican minority women.

Nanette Barragan, the first Latina elected from a congressional district in Los Angeles said, “Having more women and people of color at the table is so important for our kids to see they too can do it.”

“My parents are immigrants from Mexico. We are not just housekeepers. We are teachers, lawyers and congressmen, and we have value here,” Barragan said in a phone interview.

Historically, California is the state with the highest number of non-white, female representatives with 18. Florida and Hawaii are second with six each. Only five of the women of color who have served have been Republican, while the rest have been Democrats.
“Democrats are making progress- we have a long way to go but I want to see all of these glass ceilings shattered,“ Lee said. “It wouldn’t have been possible without trailblazers like Shirley Chisholm, so we have to continue to fight to break glass ceilings for more women of color.”
Earlier Wednesday, Rep. Nancy Pelosi defeated her challenger, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, to remain the party’s leader in the House.