I remember as a high school student being an intern on Capitol Hill back in the mid 1980s; I was back there again in college as a Senate intern; and again as a paid committee counsel staffer in the House after law school in the late 1990s. As a black girl, and then as a young professional woman of color, I would stand in awe at the majesty of the rotunda, of statutory hall, and the history of those who had served our nation.
What always struck me as odd, however, was that I never saw anyone who looked like me represented in statuary hall, except the lone sculpture of Montanan Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
As a student of history, I was captivated by the story of America, and hoped someday myself to serve in the Congress. Then life happened, and I took a brief stab at elected politics in my late 20s (I was the same age as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez when I ran for Congress in 1996) then I moved to Washington, D.C., and moved on to other things.
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Fast-forward to the new 116th Congress. It is professionally and racially diverse, the most female, the most openly LGBT and a far more youthful Congress than the past. In fact, the average age of these lawmakers has dropped from 57 in the 115th Congress to just 47 years old today.
The speaker of the House is not a middle-age white man. Instead, she is a beautiful, savvy septuagenarian woman representing California, who hails from Italian roots in Baltimore. The new Congress will also boast more women of color than ever before, including the first Native American women to serve in Congress and the first African-American woman to represent Massachusetts in the House.
Another fact worth noting is that at the swearing in ceremony on Jan. 3, more than a dozen different documents, ancient texts and books were used to swear in officials.
Female lawmakers: Diversity is your strength
The pressing question to me, however, as a woman, is of the 106 women elected or re-elected to serve in the 116th House (an increase of 15 percent compared with the 92 women who served in the 115th House), as well as the addition of five new female U.S. senators (three Democratic, two Republican), what will we as women do with this newfound power and platform? Will we use it to truly fix America? Will we use it to live out our founding motto: "E pluribus unum" (Out of many, one)?
My gut tells me — given how women can treat one another in corporate America, how competitive we can be with each other in day-to-day life, and how harshly we can interact with one another — that it will not be an easy alliance. There are some additional barriers that will need to be crossed: While 52 percent of the 67 House Democratic freshmen are female, only two (4.5 percent) of the 44 Republican freshmen are women.
It is the same with people of color: 34 percent of the freshmen House Democrats identify as people of color but just 2 percent of their freshmen Republican colleagues do the same.
Bottom line: If women truly want a seat at the table, we will need to be inclusive of not just some of us, but all of us. If we truly want to smash the patriarchy, and smash the old boys' club, we will need to learn to embrace sisterhood, intersectionality (the issue of race within gender), and our differences. And we must learn to use them as our strength. A strength that comes from an ancient code of being a woman, and understanding that to be a woman is a gift. It is power. And it is powerful.
I am eager to see how women use this historic moment to show the world that we can get along, that we can collaborate, that we can lift one another as we climb.
Sophia A. Nelson is an MSNBC commentator, journalist and author of “The Woman Code: 20 Powerful Keys to Unlock Your Life.” Follow her on Twitter: @IAmSophiaNelson
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: No other Congress has ever looked this much like me. Now how will female lawmakers use that power?