11 Things You Don’t Know About The Senate Sisterhood

And other stuff I learned reporting the Senate women’s story

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I have a story in this week’s magazine about the 20 Senate women and their growing—and positive—influence on the Upper Chamber. You can credit the tight, bipartisan bonds that these women have formed for not only seeding the compromise that reopened the government, but the vast majority of the legislation passed this session.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Mikulski pushed through a government funding bill in January that avoided both a government shutdown and a default on U.S. debt; Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray passed the first Democratic budget in four years; Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer saw through a $105 billion transportation bill and a $12.5 billion water resources bill; Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow got the  $955 billion farm bill passed; and all 20 women banded together to see the Violence Against Women Act signed into law. Except for immigration reform, every major bill passed this session has been authored by a woman.

I spent nearly six months reporting this story, interviewing 14 of the senators, some of them multiple times, as well as all 20 of the women’s staffs. So, of course, much of my reporting didn’t make it into the story. Here are 10 things—facts, anecdotes, stories—that didn’t make it into the print piece.

1) Women did not begin to maintain a multiple presence in the Senate until 1992. Most of the women elected that cycle—Democrats Patty Murray of Washington, Illinois’ Carol Mosley Braun and Californians Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer— ran to change Congress after watching male senators beat up on Anita Hill during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings.

2) Until 1992 almost all the women elected to the Senate were filling seats for a relation. But in the last 20 years, more and more women are getting elected in their own right. These days Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, is the only woman who filled a seat for a family member—her father, long time Alaska senator Frank Murkowski. Of course, that doesn’t count members of political dynasties like Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, and Hillary Clinton, who represented New York, who may not have had direct relatives serve in the Senate, but they did get a boost from their families.

3) Democrats have a natural advantage with women, a fact which Republicans are working to change. Emily’s List was started in 1986 to help elect Democratic women after Democratic men refused to give “Give ‘Em Hell” Harriet Woods money for her senatorial campaign in Missouri. She lost by 2% of the vote. Democrats have funded a lot of Mikulski’s so-called “macaroni and cheese” issues from breast cancer and other women’s health research to head start, Planned Parenthood, school lunches, maternity leave, equal pay for women, etc. Abortion is also a big issue for Democrats. It puts Republicans in a tough spot—half of the four GOP women in the Senate are pro-choice. So, for example, a Republican woman has never served on the Senate Judiciary Committee because most of the judicial confirmations revolve around abortion and the other issues are mostly hyper-partisan, whereas women generally seek to have less strident personas. Republicans have been slower to focus on electing women but congressional GOP groups this year announced a push to recruit women in 2014. Of the 20 Senate women, four are Republican.

4) Women may look sweet, but don’t assume they don’t know anything about guns and violence. The Senate was debating a ban on assault weapons a few years back and Feinstein was speaking on the floor. Former Idaho Senator Larry Craig interrupted her and patronizingly offered to tutor her about guns. Feinstein patiently explained to him that her predecessor as mayor of San Francisco had been assassinated by gun, along with a member of the a Board of Supervisors. Feinstein then offered to instruct Craig on what life in an inner city is like with guns.

5) They are pretty good camel traders. When Democrats were having trouble getting a Washington building named after former President Bill Clinton, Boxer took the lead. She offered Republicans a trade: naming a courthouse in Midland, TX for George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush. A few other members asked for small items and suddenly they had a deal. Clinton called Boxer up incredulous, “You have to tell me how you did it.”

6) Women believe in the power of food. Almost all of the chairs and ranking members have regular meals with their top counterparts. Barbara Boxer goes so far as to spend her own money catering mark ups and hearings for the staffs on both sides of the aisle. When a big bill passes, she springs for lobster rolls. “Food was an important part of my upbringing,” Boxer says. “I try to take particular staff out on both sides of the aisle.”

7)   Women have an outsized influence. According to Michele Swers, author of Women in the Club, Gender and Policy Making in the Senate, 30% of legislation between 2000-2004 was on so-called “macaroni and cheese” issues, showing that women—who only made up 9% of the chamber at the time—were batting well above average.

8) They don’t go for the kill, especially amongst themselves. The 20 Senate women gathered in the U.S. Capitol’s ceremonial Appropriations Committee hearing room in June at a deadlock over the problem of sexual assault in the military. Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill made an impassioned plea for her amendment that would leave dealing with such incidents within the chain of command. It fell flat, with 16 of the 20 supporting New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand’s competing bill, which would refer sexual assault cases to outside lawyers. Suddenly McCaskill’s long career championing of victims of sexual assault was being called into question by people she had expected to back her. But the next thing that happened was even more remarkable. The women all agreed that they would not air their differences in public, but rather emphasize the fact that the bills are 95% identical and that whichever one passes, it would represent the most significant overhaul of the issue in Congressional history. And this was the message that all 20 women stuck to in events at home or traveling abroad for the entire five-week summer recess. “There’s a list of 12 major reforms,” McCaskill said in an August interview. “Eleven of those, Kirsten and I worked on together and they are in the bill. They are huge historic reforms. But all of that work and the nature of that work unfortunately has been overshadowed by one point where we disagree.”

9) They personalize issues in highly effective ways. In Washington Democrat Patty Murray’s first year in office in 1993, the Senate was debating the Family Medical Leave Act. She took to the floor and spoke about how a dear friend’s son’s sickness and death had cost him his job and nearly bankrupted their family. On her way out of the chamber, an older male senator stopped her. “We don’t tell personal stories here,” he admonished. “It’s inappropriate.” Murray replied that she had every intention of talking about personal stories and she felt it was more than appropriate. “Years later he apologized and thanked me,” Murray recalls. “He realized that highlighting the real impact, that that’s how we help people understand what we’re doing.”

10) The club is diverse. Some women are single. Some are childless. Some ran for office when their children were grown. Many are grandmothers. Age is one commonality; life experience is another, as are geography and politics. Murkowski and Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono have bonded over the special needs of representing non-contiguous states. And it doesn’t hurt that Murkowski’s mother-in-law lives in Maui. Democrats Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the first openly gay senator, and Heitkamp hail from the same region and were brought together traveling the country in 2012, when they were both elected, as part of a Democratic push to showcase female candidates. Hurricane Katrina veteran Landrieu, who chairs of the Small Business Committee, helped Gillibrand navigate the 9/11 First Responders Fund and Hurricane Sandy relief bills through the Senate. Boxer has taken a special interest in Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren—both are liberal firebrands.

11) Almost every woman elected to the Senate has stories of sexism. Three months after taking office in 2007, when the number of female senators rose from 14 to 16, Klobuchar was on a Senators only elevator. The doors opened to admit an older male senator, whom she won’t name. He looked at her and barked: “This elevator is for Senators only!” Her staffer replied, “She is a Senator.” The man went bright red, and stepped back. As the doors closed without him, Klobuchar sweetly quipped, “And who are you?” On McCaskill’s first day, she was stopped by a Senate chamber doormen. Assuming she was staff, he told there’d be no floor passes that day. “I said, ‘I think I earned my floor pass,’” McCaskill recalls. “He was mortified.” During Ayotte’s first week as the only woman elected in 2010, she was in the Capitol with Florida Republican Marco Rubio. An orientation aide approached and reminded Rubio that he needed to get an ID, as did his wife, the staffer said, gesturing to Ayotte. “I think Marco was more embarrassed than I was,” Ayotte laughs.

7 comments
OntheSubjectionofWomen
OntheSubjectionofWomen

While focusing on the 20 women in the U.S. Senate is admirable, if you start sentences about them with "Women may look sweet ..." you're part of the reason we have such a long way to go towards the equal participation and treatment of women in politics. Treating these women with the dignity they deserve should entail not making gendered statements about their appearance and demeanor. "Sweet" would never be used in reference to a professional male politician.

AlishaGraves13
AlishaGraves13

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PattiL
PattiL

Thanks for presenting this positive  article about our fine female leadership.  I have watched Senate hearings often and always appreciate how the Senator-ess's (smile) conduct themselves with strength and FINESSE which is most often lacking in the sometimes bullish male Senators.  Good write!

HannibalThai
HannibalThai

The sexism tales appear to be quite mild, none are intentional, and quite understandable seeing how few female Senators there were at the time.    Things could only get better though.  


j45ashton
j45ashton

Generally, women are the answer.  But there are exceptions.  Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Sharon Angle, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Monica Crowley, Christine O'Donnell, Lady Macbeth...your basic Fox News Contributor. 

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

There were 178.6 million females in the United States in 2009. The number of males was 151.4 million. Michele Bachmann notwithstanding, perhaps we'll have a functional government when >50% of the members of Congress are female.