From military service to public service: increasing the number of women veterans in elected office
It’s been almost 75 years since women were recognized as permanent members of the U.S. Armed Forces. Despite being the fastest growing demographic of the veteran population, the challenges women service members, women veterans, and their families face are still often pushed to the side. Look no further than this month’s announcement that the Army is finally making its first uniform bra—three-quarters of a century after welcoming women as permanent members of the military.
At The Ascend Fund, we know that when women have an equal voice at the decision-making table and our elected officials are representative of a diversity of lived experiences, we get better public policy outcomes. To make sure the needs of women service members and veterans are considered when public policy decisions are being made, we need to elect more women veterans to public office. As Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, a Marine Corps veteran and the first Black woman to hold statewide office in Virginia, expressed, “while you don’t have to be a veteran to understand how veterans are affected by policy, it makes a difference when you ‘speak the same language.’”
Women veterans bring an essential point of view to the table
Though veterans have historically made up a large portion of elected officials, they’ve almost exclusively been men; in fact, only nine women veterans have ever served in Congress. And it’s no better at the state level: there are only 62 women veterans currently serving in state legislatures (out of 7,383 legislators) and over a third of states have zero women veterans serving in their state legislature.
Despite their small numbers, women elected officials who have served in the military have made a significant impact on the lives of women service members, veterans, and their families, bringing their lived experience, so different from the experience of those who have traditionally held power, to the table. In Congress, we’ve seen women veterans take the lead on:
Preventing and Punishing Sexual Assault in Military. Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (U.S. Army Reserve and Iowa National Guard) worked with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on a bipartisan bill to reduce and prevent sexual assault against service members and reform the way the military prosecutes sexual assaults.
Eliminating Hunger in the Military. Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth (U.S. Army Reserve and Illinois National Guard) helped introduce bipartisan legislation to support active-duty military families experiencing food insecurity.
Ensuring Female Veterans Get the Healthcare They Need. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks from Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District (U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve) introduced two bills to expand mammography access for female veterans, particularly those in areas associated with burn pits and other toxic exposures, that became law earlier this year.
Through the lens of their shared service, women veterans often work together in bipartisan coalitions to advance legislation critical to the well-being of women veterans and servicemembers. For example, in 2019, body armor still wasn’t made to properly fit women, a dangerous prospect in combat zones. To address this, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Sen. Joni Ernst (R- IA), and Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) were three of the four co-sponsors of legislation that would require the military to finally make gear specifically for women’s bodies. Two years later, Congress passed a law requiring the military to do so.
There are not enough women veterans – especially women veterans of color – in public office
Women are 14% of active-duty service members and 10% of veterans, and those numbers are increasing: women are the fastest growing demographic of the veteran population and expected to be 18% of veterans by 2040. Even so, women veterans are just 1% of Congress and less than 1% of state legislators.
Women of color veterans especially lack representation. Despite together making up 29% of women veterans, there has never been a Black, Latina, or Native American woman veteran elected to Congress. There is only one woman of color veteran – Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who is Asian American – currently serving in Congress.
Recently, more women veterans are signing up to go from military service to public service. The number of women veterans running as major party nominees for Congress has been increasing, jumping from 14 in 2018 to 28 in 2020. And the stage is set for what is likely the first all-women veteran v. veteran race is U.S. history between incumbent Elaine Luria and challenger Jen Kiggans in Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District.
While these are all steps in the right direction, more needs to be done to ensure women veterans, particularly women veterans of color, have meaningful seats at the table. Ascend partner organizations such as Advance Native Political Leadership, Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), Higher Heights Leadership Fund, LatinasRepresent, and New American Leaders are committed to ensuring women of color – who make up about 34% of the women veteran’s population – have political homes that can help them navigate the unique barriers they face running for office. And, as The Ascend Fund continues to ensure a diversity of voices are around the decision-making table, we are excited about the potential to partner with organizations – like the New Politics Leadership Academy, Veterans Campaign, and The Mission Continues – on programs focused on addressing the obstacles women veterans face on the path to public office and highlighting the strengths women veterans bring with them.
 Department of Veterans Affairs – Women Veterans Report: The Past, Present, and Future of Women Veterans; U.S. Census Bureau – Armed Forces Day: May 21, 2022  Washington Post – The Army is making its first uniform bra. Vets say it’s long overdue.  Marine Corps Association – Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor, Marine Veteran Winsome Earle-Sears: “Leadership is Not What You Say: It’s What You Do”  Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives – Women Members with Military Service  National Conference of State Legislatures – Military Veterans in State Legislatures for 2021  Office of Sen. Joni Ernst – Ernst Helps Lead New, Bipartisan Effort to Prevent Military Sexual Assault, Hold Perpetrators Accountable  Office of Sen. Tammy Duckworth – Duckworth, Murkowski Introduce New Bipartisan Bill to Tackle Military Hunger  Office of Rep. Marianeette Miller Meeks – Miller-Meeks’ Veterans Bills Signed Into Law  Task and Purpose – Women in the US military may finally get body armor that actually fits  Department of Veterans Affairs – Women Veterans Report: The Past, Present, and Future of Women Veterans; U.S. Census Bureau – Armed Forces Day: May 21, 2022  Department of Veterans Affairs – Women Veterans Report: The Past, Present, and Future of Women Veterans; Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives – Women Members with Military Service  U.S. News – Veterans Are Prized Recruits as Congressional Candidates  PBS Newshour – Sen. Jen Kiggans snags GOP nomination to face Virginia’s Rep. Elaine Luria