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Meet Tammy Duckworth, who was just elected to Congress from Illinois’ 8th District. She’s a decorated combat vet, making her the first woman vet, let alone combat vet, elected to a major political office in the United States. Did I mention that she’s also biracial, trilingual and disabled? She’s pretty much a conservative nightmare, and may I just say: she is a complete and utter badass.
Duckworth served in the US Army as a helicopter pilot, in one of the few positions open to women that might offer a chance at combat. In 2004, she got her wish to see action as she was shot down by insurgents over the Tigris River. Her co-pilot initially thought she was dead, but fortunately she was whisked away to a military hospital and into treatment; a little over a year later, she was back on duty.
By 2006, she was serving in the National Guard and working at the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, where she campaigned hard on a number of key issues for vets. Under Duckworth, Illinois started offering tax credits to businesses that hired combat vets, for example, and she’s a firm campaigner for the social safety net. She remembers being on food stamps as a child while her father was in the military, and rightly doesn’t think that should happen to anyone. And she's grateful for the impeccable medical care she received during the critical golden hour after her injuries. Strangely, she seems to think everyone should have access to that kind of treatment.
She failed on a run for Congress in 2010, but apparently learned some lessons along the way, and prepared to hit the campaign trail again in 2011. What ensued was one of the most vicious Congressional fights in the nation, with a blitz of attack ads across the 8th District, and some of the most truly bizarre commentary on the airwaves from her opponent, the hotheaded Republican Joe Walsh. Walsh took his seat by less than 300 votes in 2010 and became one of the obstructionist crop of freshman Congresspeople who made it their personal mission to foul every one of the Obama Administration’s attempts at reasonable social reform.
At first, Republicans seemed hesitant to attack Duckworth, perhaps fearing the reception of attacks on a disabled combat veteran, but that quickly changed. First, they accused her of benefiting from gerrymandering and other insider politics in Illinois, a state infamous for political corruption. That, apparently, wasn’t enough, because then Walsh decided to go after her military service. In July, he informed voters that Duckworth wasn’t a “real hero.”
I’m sorry, dude, but you can’t say that about a double amputee who survived a helicopter crash and then calmly went on duty as soon as she was able to. You just can’t. Outraged veterans flooded Walsh’s Facebook and other social media sites to express their fury, but Walsh kept right on trampling her military service. It was almost like he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t win by offending as many people as possible.
Then, of course, he made the comment about how exceptions to abortion bans for the life of the mother aren’t necessary because modern science has made maternal mortality a nonissue, something will surely come as a surprise to the 16.7 US women who die per 100,000 live births every year. This in an election cycle where pregnancies from rape were compared to having babies out of wedlock and candidate Todd Akin (defeated! YES!) made the infamous legitimate rape comment.
Walsh made himself look like the ignorant, vicious man he is, while Duckworth ran an aggressive campaign focusing on progressive values. Unsurprisingly, she made veterans’ issues an important part of her campaign, no doubt in part because she’s a vet, but also because they’re a pressing issue across the United States right now. Vets experience high unemployment, high suicide rates, a higher risk of mental health conditions, and a number of other obstacles to full social integration. She was one of the few candidates concretely addressing military issues.
Duckworth is among the fleet of women being celebrated this morning as we mark a number of key milestones for women in politics, showing a major shift in the demographic composition of Congress that might spell meaningful political changes for the future. That's a change from last night, where it didn't escape my notice that many of the progressives celebrating candidates like Tammy Baldwin, the first openly lesbian US Senator, remained strangely silent on Duckworth until prompted by myself and other disability rights activists.
All of the barriers broken by women in politics last night are significant, but Duckworth’s is especially notable because of what she represents on so many fronts. Women veterans are routinely erased from the national conversation about military service and who comes back from war, and she’s a loud, defiant figure showing that women can be and are injured in combat, even as they’re excluded from most combat roles as the result of outdated policies. For women veterans who are used to being ignored and sent to the corner, Duckworth is a concrete sign of change.
She defies stereotypes about disability and disabled people, and joins the very small list of Asian-American women seated in the US House of Representatives, which is huge. She represents all that the right fears -- she even spent part of her childhood in Indonesia! -- and she managed to take down a man who ran a brutal, vicious campaign targeting her very identity, not just her politics. Duckworth and women like her represent a shift in the tone of US politics.
I’m celebrating all the victories accomplished last night, but Duckworth’s is especially close to my heart, because I’m excited to see more representation of disability in politics, and I’m delighted to see a woman combat vet serving in Congress. I hope she’s a fierce advocate for her constituents and that she blazes a bright trail in Congress, following in the path of representatives like Jim Langevin, who became the first wheelchair user to address the House in 2010 -- after pushing for modifications to the Speaker’s platform to make it wheelchair accessible.