Senate Women Quietly Exert Influence

When women make up 20% of the Senate, they can make themselves heard

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J. Scott Applewhite / ASSOCIATED PRESS

From left, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., talk to reporters about reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on Capitol Hill in Washington.

This month the Senate is moving to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, placing more of an emphasis on individual visas than on family considerations.

What does that mean for women who are often prevented from obtaining higher educations in the developing world? For now, the new system would automatically give male applications an advantage as applications with more education are favored in the new system.

So, 12 women senators on Thursday introduced an amendment that would increase the number of visas for female nannies, home healthcare workers and early childhood educators.

Sisterhood has its advantages. This session, female senators have helped pass the Violence Against Women Act and spotlighted through tough cross-examinations of Pentagon generals the problem of sexual assaults in the military. Female chairmen have passed the first budget in five years, a farm bill and, last year, a transportation bill – at least, through the Senate. “They are having quite an impact,” said Michele Swers, a Georgetown professor and author of Women in the Club: and Policy Making in the Senate. “It’s a combination of numbers and seniority.”

There are five freshmen female senators, but more importantly women chair or are the top members of 10 of the Senate’s 24 committees, exercising an outsize influence on policy. The trend skews Democratic: 16 of the 20 are Democrats, but two of the four Republicans are so senior as to be the ranking members on the Energy and Aging Committees.

Since the first female senator was elected in 1932, and especially since women have maintained a steady plural presence since 1992, women have been influencing the senate agenda. When former Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison first arrived in 1993, there were seven female senators. During the Clinton healthcare debate later that year, a proposal came up that would’ve allowed insurance companies not to cover mammograms for women under 40. “Every single woman, Republican and Democrat, came together and spoke out in a hearing against that provision and because we were so united, it was the first thing that was killed,” Hutchison remembered. “It was a wonderful moment.”

Over the years women have helped push through bills like the Equal Pay for Women Act, funding for breast cancer and other research into women’s health issues, support for women in Afghanistan, autism studies, an IRA program for homemakers and mandated family and maternity leave – to name just a few bills. And as the number of female senators has multiplied, so has the volume of legislation. “Women bring different perspectives, different frames of references,” said Olympia Snowe, a former Republican senator from Maine. “The institution should be more reflective of the broader population. It’s healthier for the country.”

Nationally, women make up 53% of the vote, but only 20% of the Senate.  “If we could fast forward to 2099 and look back on the century,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “I’d be willing to bet that women would be approaching a majority of the Senate.”

Of course, just because they’re all women, doesn’t mean they’re automatically on the same page. The seven women on the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month split over an amendment that would have taken investigations of sexual assaults in the military out of the chain of command. Three of the women on the 26-member committee voted against it, four for it. But even though it didn’t pass, the final version offered by Chairman Carl Levin was much tougher than the Pentagon would have liked in large part because of the concerns voiced by the women on his committee.

The bonds of sisterhood rarely transcend party lines. Of the 20, two women are pro-life and — except for an autism amendment last year sponsored by Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat — there is rarely a single issue that unites them all.

“We had our differences,” said former Senator Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat. “Some women were single, some married, some hailed from cities, other were rural, some had young kids, like me, others older kids and others no kids at all.”

But one thing that does unite them is the responsibility of representation – both of their sex and their constituents. Many say they’d like to get to a place where it makes no difference if a woman or a man is elected. But, as far away as America is from that point, much progress has already been made in the last generation. “When I started my first campaign in 1991,” Lincoln said, “my mother’s comment to me was, ‘It is a fact, not a fault, there are not more women in elected office. Women’s roles in families, communities and societies have just been different. But it’ll be our fault if we let it remain that way.”

Proof of the work still to be done: the immigration amendment cosponsored by Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski and Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono faces an uphill battle for approval on the Senate floor.