Perhaps the best part of any election is the revived hope and energy it can bring, because when promises and practical measures fail—and they always do, in some small or large way or another, because getting things done is both slow and hard, with some obstacles near unsurmountable—that psychological boost we attained, the benefit of that lift and sense of empowerment and possibility, cannot be discounted. We always have 2008, or how we felt then, just as we always will have this moment, now. Our feelings about it might change, but we can't say many of us didn't feel a sense of inspiration then, and something not entirely unlike it again last night and this morning. Yet, if we look back at what just happened—an incumbent was re-elected—it might be pretty easy to say that nothing had changed. Same president, same Republican House, same Democratic Senate, same divided Court. What's different? Of course, plenty of stuff is different. What might be most practically and importantly different involves not just the president, but us, the voters, the people who feel the way we do and have acted on it, changing America. That's what an election is about. Not to be cheesy, but that's what America is about. Maybe one voice isn't heard enough to make a difference, but eventually, many voices will be.

So how did this election change America, really? Or was America changing all along, with our votes simply a way of registering that fact? Make no mistake, this election was historic: Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg write in The New York Times, "Mr. Obama’s re-election extended his place in history, carrying the tenure of the nation’s first black president into a second term." But that's not the only thing making the results of this election feel pretty momentous:

Women. While in the lead-up to the election there was much to-do about a war on women, it turned out that women kind of won the war. This was happening even before the results came in, as Margaret Talbot put it in The New Yorker: "If you got caught up in the 'war on women' narrative this election cycle, you might have missed the fact that that a conspicuous number of women were running for the Senate today," she wrote. Things aren't even yet, of course. But there are more women now elected to U.S. Congress than ever, and they are not in binders, but out of them. Britain's Channel 4 News Presenter Cathy Newman acknowledges this in The Telegraph,

Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay senator—and Wisconsin's first woman in the senate. There were other firsts too—the first Asian American woman in Mazie Hirono, and the first disabled woman in Tammy Duckworth. In fact, there will be a record number of female senators in Congress.

As our own Esther Zuckerman points out, next term the U.S. Senate will have at least 19 female members, up from 17, which is a record. Along with Baldwin and Hirono, that includes Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer, Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, Washington Senator Maria Cantwell, Calfornia's Dianne Feinstein, New York's Kirsten Gillibrand, Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar, Missouri's Claire McCaskill (beating Todd Akin), and Michigan's Debbie Stabenow, among others. Talbot adds, "If it hadn't been for those antediluvian attacks on contraception, we'd be calling this the Year of the Woman. If there was a war on women this year, it looks like the women are winning."

Further, many, many women voted (as women traditionally do, since having won that right), for Obama: "A majority of women supported Obama’s re-election, more than countering Romney’s lead among men, exit polls showed yesterday," writes Carl Campanile in the New York Post. "The president garnered 54 percent of the female vote compared with 44 percent for Romney."

Sexism Is Not O.K. Another way in which women are winning the "war": Those guys saying stuff about women (and rape) that seemed to come from a long-ago time in which chauvinism was all the rage appear to have gotten their due, to some extent. As our Elspeth Reeve writes, "The election has not gone well for the Republican rape gaffe candidates." Mourdock lost. Akin lost. Tom Smith and Roger Rivard also lost. Maybe we can't attribute all of this to their gaffes, but it seems clear that accepted ideological lines are shifting from antiquated and/or Tea Party-esque to something a lot more reasonable. And on the other side of that, the women and men who spoke out about these gaffes have certainly been heard.

Gay Marriage. This is hugely heartening. Same-sex marriage was approved in Maryland and Maine, two states becoming among the first to approve gay marriage by popular vote. Elsewhere, in Minnesota, the majority of voters appear, so far, to be voting no on Amendment 1, which would ban same-sex marriage in the state. And in Washington, a vote by mail state, there's a good chance same-sex marriage will be approved as legal as well, once the votes are tabulated. Our views as a nation appear to be changing in favor of rights for all. That is hope.

Marijuana. In "new" America, voters in Colorado and Washington supported making pot legal for recreational use. "These two states just gave the green light to an entirely new industry including but not limited to the large scale production, distribution and sale of marijuana. Just like in Amsterdam, only more comprehensive," writes the Wire's Adam Clark Estes. Via Reuters, "The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will,' Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who opposed the measure, said in a statement. 'This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through.'" Federal law, of course, still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so things may get complicated, but whether you believe in the legalization of pot or not, you have to agree that the evidenced power of voters has been pretty exciting this election year. 

Not everyone agrees with these measures, and we'll surely see at least some of these things disputed and criticized as we go forward. After all, as soon as Obama began to be projected as the winner, there were commentators ready to say that we have a nation divided, that governance would be a problem, that we are an America of reds and blues, with not a lot of bridges in between. And later, from The Times, "Obama, 51, faces governing in a deeply divided country and a partisan-rich capital, where Republicans retained their majority in the House and Democrats kept their control of the Senate." There are good, intelligent people in each and every state, regardless of which candidate those states gave their electoral votes to, but the look of new America is divided, sometimes angry, with polarizing opinions. That's worrisome and a definite challenge; we have to find ways to communicate and stay together as a country. That's going to take work.

But still, as a whole, it feels pretty great to luxuriate for a moment knowing that an apparent fulcrum has been reached with gay marriage, so much so that the people are beginning to vote to pass it state by state. Or that we've reached a point with sexism at which we're simply not going to take it anymore, not on a national political level, and not on an individualized or localized level, either. The "rape apologists," after all, lost. There are more women being, slowly but surely, elected. There is moving forward to go from that, but that doesn't mean we haven't already moved forward. We're acknowledging climate change. The ways in which we talk about these things has also forever changed. 

It's easy to feel cynical in the 24-hour news cycle, or to wonder how, actually, things will be different—was last night just a show after which we all return to "normal" or the status quo again? But even if you've been disappointed with Barack Obama over the past four years, even if you didn't or thought twice about voting for him yesterday, there's hope in knowing that our nation is changing. As for that "different direction" that Romney hoped to lead us in? There's hope in knowing that before we got the results of this election, that new direction was already in the works—and that momentum is a hard thing to stop, particularly when much of it appears to be coming from the people, not the politicians. As Isolde Rafferty wrote last night for NBC News, "The Year of the Woman, 1992, was declared a triumph when the number of women in the Senate increased to six." We're not all there yet with equality, but 19 is clearly a step in the right direction—we, not the president, put those women in office.

My favorite post-election look at America, I think, is this one. One woman was so excited at Obama's victory party, I imagine, that she apparently left her shoes behind:

We hope she gets her shoes back. But maybe she's already moving on.

Image via Kevin Lamarque / Reuters.