In the first 11 weeks of the 110th Congress, several pieces of progressive legislation, including the Employee Free Choice Act and an increase in the minimum wage, have passed in the House. With the new Democratic majority, congressional silence on the Iraq war has been shattered.

Women have been a big part of this. In November, voters sent more women to Capitol Hill than ever before. In at least three Senate races, in Virginia, Montana and Missouri, women voters made the critical difference in defeating Republicans.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is the first woman ever elected by her colleagues as Speaker of the House.

Phyllis Wetherby, president of the First Pittsburgh Chapter of the National Organization for Women, told the World, “Women are slowly gaining, too slowly, considering that women are more than half the population. But we keep gaining, and it has already made a difference.

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put the core issues — 9/11 panel recommendations, minimum wage, stem cell research and prescription drugs — right into the vote on House rules,” she said. “The House passed this legislation in about half the first 100 hours that Speaker Pelosi promised.”

Wetherby, who also serves on Pennsylvania NOW’s political action committee, has 40 years of experience advancing women’s rights and the progressive agenda.

When the November election dust settled, the number of women U.S. senators had grown from 14 to 16, representing 13 states. Democratic women now hold 11 of these seats.

In the House chamber there are 71 women representatives from 30 states, with California voters sending the most, 19. Women gained four seats over last time. Democratic women hold 50 seats, their GOP counterparts, 21. In addition, three nonvoting delegates, from the District of Columbia, Guam and the Virgin Islands, are women.

There are 21 women of color in the House, almost all Democrats. African American women hold 12 seats, Asian Pacific Islanders two and Latinas seven. No women of color serve in the Senate.

Two representatives, Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, co-chair the Progressive Caucus, the largest caucus in the House. Twenty-four women are members of this caucus.

“Women voted for change in this election,” writes Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “The exit polls provide compelling evidence that Democrats would not be in control of the new Congress without strong support from women voters.”

A case in point: the GOP’s third in command, Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, crashed and burned in November as his Democratic opponent Robert Casey Jr. captured 61 percent of the women’s vote and 57 percent of men’s.

Wetherby pointedly observed that although the gender gap in the United States is still alive and well, “It’s been a long time since women I asked to register to vote told me that ‘my husband votes for me.’”

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