A lot of fanfare followed last November's election, when the
number of women in the U.S. Senate surged to 20 — more than ever before.
quieter victories came after. Female senators now claim an
unprecedented number of leadership positions, and for the first time in
history, women are at the helm of both the Appropriations and Budget
committees — as well as half of the Armed Services subcommittees.
week served as the first major victory for Democratic Sen. Barbara
Mikulski of Maryland when the Senate and House passed legislation to
keep the government funded through the end of the fiscal year. Mikulski,
as the first woman ever to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee,
was the lead architect of the Senate bill.
The Baltimore native
is under 5 feet tall — but don't mess with her. She has a way of making
it exceedingly clear if you're wearing on her patience, and when she
walks, people instinctively move out of her way.
now the longest-serving woman in Congress. When she started her first
Senate term in 1987, she was one of only two women in the chamber.
But a lot has changed since Mikulski's early days.
More Women In Leadership Posts
eight of the 20 main Senate committees are chaired by women. Much of
that is based on seniority. But Senate leaders also had a hand in
bringing women up within the chamber.
Betty Koed, one of the
Senate's historians, says lawmakers knew they needed an image makeover
after the world watched the Senate Judiciary Committee question Supreme
Court nominee Clarence Thomas about sexual harassment.
was that dais of senators that was all white males," Koed says, "and it
got a lot of publicity at the time — that here you have not only all
white males, sort of sitting in judgment over this would-be Supreme
Court justice, but over Anita Hill as well. Two African-Americans."
Koed says, there was an effort by Senate leaders soon after the 1991
hearings to get the few women who trickled into the Senate into higher
profile committees. After Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Sen.
Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois were elected in 1992, then-Sen. Joe
Biden personally approached them to invite them onto the Senate
Judiciary Committee, which he chaired at the time.
'Ability To Negotiate'
female senators, both current and retired, seem to agree on one point:
The presence of women in the Senate doesn't only help appearances; it
inherently changes the tone and process of legislating.
are attuned to the need to make things work," says Kay Bailey Hutchison,
the former Republican senator of Texas. "I think it's been very helpful
to have more women in the process, even when I disagree with them on
Hutchison says many of the stereotypes about women
— that they're consensus-builders, effective listeners and empathetic
communicators — have kernels of truth. And that's what gets things done
on the Hill.
"One of the things that I've always believed a woman brought was
the ability to negotiate and the ability to understand the importance of
trying to work together," says Nancy Kassebaum, who served as a
Republican senator from Kansas from 1978 to 1997. When Kassebaum started
her first term, she was the only woman in the Senate for two years.
Patty Murray, D-Wash., says her experience as a mom helps her run a
very diverse Budget Committee, which includes members such as Sen.
Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent from Vermont; and Sen. Mark
Warner, a more conservative Democrat from Virginia.
"I think we
do listen for where compromise is in a good way," Murray says. "So when
someone tells us that, really strongly, that this is what they need, we
find something within that we can help them achieve. And that's what we
do with our kids, right?"
But it's not just about making everyone feel included. Female lawmakers say that women also inject skepticism.
Challenging The Way Of Thinking
the first time, women now chair half of the subcommittees in Armed
Services, which oversees all military operations. Democratic Sen. Jeanne
Shaheen of New Hampshire, who chairs the Subcommittee on Readiness and
Management Support, says when it comes to fraud and abuse in government
contracts, it's a good thing women often feel like outsiders.
we tend to be willing to challenge the old boy way of doing things in a
way that, when we're talking about contracts in the military, is very
important. Because we need more oversight," Shaheen says.
But while women have advanced in Senate leadership, if you walk
around the Capitol, you get the feeling the place is still trying to
catch up. There are way more men's bathrooms than women's bathrooms. The
men's gym is bigger and nicer than the women's gym — although women can
work out in both.
Murray remembers that when she first arrived
at the Senate in 1993, her husband received a pink envelope in the
mail, inviting him to join the "Ladies of the Senate Club."
awkward is that?" Murray laughs. "To explain to him that, 'Uh, no, you
don't have to do that,' and he said, 'Well, I'll join them, but as long
as I don't have to wear a pink pinafore or something.'"
Murray asked the club if it could at least rename itself. And the club
actually pushed back at first, she said, saying that had been the name
for more than a hundred years.
It has since changed its mind: It's now called the "Senate Spouses Group."