A Woman’s Place is in the House…and in the Senate

In honor of March 7th, the International Day of Women, it seemed appropriate to comment on the history and current group of women who are serving in the Senate.

As a quick review of action in the past few months, Senator Jim DeMint resigned, Senator Daniel Inouye passed away in December, and Senator John Kerry was recently appointed Secretary of State, resulting in three vacancies in Senate seats that were not scheduled to be filled in the 2012 elections.  Vacancies in the Senate are filled through appointment by the Governor of the state, followed by a special election sometime thereafter.  In the House, the seat remains vacant until an election can be held.  Because of those two different traditions, women have always been elected to the House, but the first women in the Senate became members through appointment to fill vacant seats.

The very first woman, Rebecca Latimore Felton, was appointed to the Senate to serve out the term of the late Thomas E. Waters in late 1922.  The Governor of Georgia was under strong pressure from newly enfranchised female voters to appoint a woman, so he complied, but since the appointment was made on October 3rd after the Senate had recessed for the year, he never expected that Senator Felton would serve since the seat would be filled in the November election.  Unexpectedly, the Senate reconvened for a special session on November 21st, so Senator Felton was sworn in, made a speech on the floor, and resigned, all in 24 hours.  In addition to being the Senator serving the shortest term, Senator Felton was also the oldest Senator ever to be sworn in for the first time.  She was 87.  I hope I’m still having an influence when I reach that age!

After the passage of the 19th Amendment, it became common practice that when a male Senator died in office, his wife would be appointed to fill out his term.  This became known as the Widow’s mandate, and although it was often how women got their feet in the door, many of the female Senators went on to win election on their own.  Senator Hattie Caraway of Arkansas, who was appointed in 1931, was one of eight women who took this route to the Senate.  Senator Caraway went on to win a special election for her late husband’s seat followed by winning a regular election to keep the seat; she was the first woman to be elected to the Senate.  Most recently, Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan passed away during the campaign season after it was too late to put a new name on the ballot.  The voters still elected Carnahan posthumously, with the understanding that his widow, Jean Carnahan, would be assuming his seat.  My most favorite recent story is that when Senator Frank Murkowski left his Senate seat to become Governor of Alaska, he appointed his daughter, Lisa, to his seat, and she has since been elected in her own right.

The Senate has come a long way since the times of having a token female Senator.  One of the books on my To Be Read shelf is “Nine and Counting,” which was written by the nine female Senators prior to 2000. My 2001 paperback edition includes the afterword, “And then there were thirteen,” after the 2000 elections further expanded the number of women who had been elected to the upper chamber.  One of the most thrilling parts of the 2012 elections for me was that there are now 20 women among the hundred senators.  At some point, I read that when a minority, be it gender, racial, religious, or sexual orientation, is less than 10% of the group, then they are token representatives of their groups, and to some extent, they are treated as anomalies in the system.  When the proportion of the minority rises to somewhere between 20 and 30% of the group, they acquire sufficient numbers that they are no longer exceptions, they draw less attention and their traits become part of the larger group.  In the Democratic caucus, the proportion is 16 women out of 55 for 29%.  The numbers may not represent women’s overall proportion of the population, but it is definite progress.

Back in November, there was great consternation in the House because for a while, there were no committees being chaired by a woman.  I’ve been struck by how different the situation is in the Senate where the positions are earned through seniority rather than through political patronage. Of 20 committees in the Senate, eight of those have woman as chairs (the most senior majority party member), and two of them have women as ranking members (the most senior minority party member).  I suspect that I am more aware subconsciously than consciously of those women as leaders, but I know that if I weren’t seeing women in leadership roles, I would be acutely aware of the lack.

One story that made the rounds just after the election enchanted me.  Immediately after the election, the new Senators and Members of Congress come to the Hill for several weeks for orientation.  Sen. Amy Klobuchar announced, “For the first time there was a traffic jam in the women’s Senate restroom.  There were five of us and only two stalls.”  Judging from the laughter about it, that was a nice problem to have!

The women in the Senate have a reputation for being particularly bipartisan.  They regularly share dinner together, meeting in the Strom Thurmond room in the Capitol.  No, the irony of meeting in a room named for a man who had a particularly poor opinion of women is not lost on them.  In the annual Senate softball games, there are two different games that are played.  The first is Democrats vs. Republicans.  The second is the Women vs. the Media, which certainly demonstrates that the women can all be team players.

When I started working in the Senate, I felt that one of my first responsibilities was to learn the names and faces of all the female senators.  The smaller number of them made it an easily accomplished goal, but their departure from the standard blue and gray suits also make them much easier to spot on the Senate floor.  In spite of not working for a female senator, I have learned the personalities of many of the women by watching them in committee meetings or on the floor.  From the scrappy Senator Mikulski who does not hesitate to scold her noisy colleagues to Senator Gillibrand who is a passionate advocate for children and families, they each have a different style, but they each serve as role models for me and as signs of progress for women.  I’ve been pleased that Senator Warren, newly elected from Massachusetts, has the respect of my entire office.  Since she is new, she shares the duties of presiding on the floor, and one of our LA’s recently commented, “You can tell that she’s dealt with unruly classes before!”  I admire that she has obviously done her homework to learn the proper words to say and to understand the complex rules of the Senate.  It is a pleasure and a privilege to see all of these women leaders in action.

The women senators of the 113th Congress (In the Kennedy Caucus room, I think)

The women senators of the 113th Congress (In the Kennedy Caucus room, I think)

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