Five women are gathered around the dining-room table from Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s childhood home. It’s the centerpiece of her hideaway, an unmarked retreat in the U.S. Capitol, and, like the hideaway itself, it’s a symbol of the distance all of them have traveled. The shelves and walls display testaments to Mikulski’s long career: photographs, clippings, replicas of the space shuttle. One highlight is a picture of “Buckboard Barb” Mikulski in a cowboy hat and colorful Mexican-style vest, standing with former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison during a visit to Texas. Another is a series of photos that starts with two women and ends with 20, a visual display that is striking less for its drama than for its incrementalism. The modern history of women in the Senate is one of slow, hard-fought gains across three decades that have at last given them real clout—or perhaps we should say the potential for real clout, since they serve in a Congress famous for gridlock, not accomplishments.
“This room, probably when Barbara Mikulski came in, was one of those rooms where there were cigars and a bunch of guys,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said during a recent discussion in the hideaway.
And now? “No cigars,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
“No cigars and a lot of hardworking women,” agreed Murray.
Five senators in any small room will set the atmosphere crackling with authority and power, and that was true here despite the conspicuous absence of testosterone. You don’t get to become or stay a senator without sharp political-survival skills, and the cool self-assurance that you belong in one of the world’s most exclusive clubs. Most of the women also believe they make special contributions to the Senate—in the issues they highlight, in their collegial style, and in the close-knit network they have formed, despite their differences.
The group’s most arguable contention is that women have a particular talent for working with others. If you ask them what they bring to the Senate, almost all of them say things like this: more collaboration, less confrontation; more problem-solving, less ego; more consensus-building, less partisanship. Those are fixed perceptions, not just among the senators but, research shows, among voters as well. And there is plenty of evidence, in the form of deals made and bills passed, that women know how to get things done. That’s especially true now that women chair eight full committees and many subcommittees. But are they really better at this than men? Historians and researchers say there are too few of them, and their arrival on the scene has been too recent, to draw any conclusions.
Sixteen Democrats and four Republicans make up the Senate women’s caucus. They span the ideological spectrum from San Francisco-area liberals Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to tea-party favorites Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. The age spectrum runs from Feinstein, 80, to Ayotte, 45. Mikulski, elected in 1986, is the longest-serving woman in Senate history. The most measurable aspect of the ever-increasing presence of women, and so far the most significant, is their impact on national policy—from making sure federal researchers included women in clinical trials, to the current show of force on sexual assaults in the military. Onetime “women’s issues” such as health, education, child care, abortion, and pay equity are now prominent on the congressional docket. “If you made a list and flipped back a couple of decades, that list would be an agenda for outside advocacy groups,” says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. “Those issues are now inside. And they’re inside because there are women inside.”
Another hallmark of the women is that they have re-created among themselves a bygone world, one in which senators drank together in the offices of their leaders or the Senate secretary; in which their families lived in Washington, and their kids played and went to school together, Democrats and Republicans alike. The women do it in part through their famously private dinners, begun 20 years ago to create what Collins calls a “safe space” for women to talk about their problems and triumphs, their children, their parents, and their passions. Held every couple of months at the Capitol, in restaurants, or at their homes, they are for senators only—no press, no staff, no leaks, and, until recently, no men. That changed in April when President Obama, acting on a suggestion from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., invited them all to dinner at the White House. “We set our sights very high,” Boxer says.
The members have thrown showers for women who are getting married or adopting children. They socialize with their families at each other’s homes. They run together and discuss how to juggle a Senate career and the responsibility of raising young children. Mikulski recently invited all 19 of her female colleagues to her office to update them on developments regarding sexual assaults in the military. Feinstein, elected in 1992, often takes new senators to lunch to advise them on how to run a Senate office. “We’re not a clique. We’re not a sorority. We’re not a club,” she says. “But it’s very easy to talk to women. That’s a real plus.”
Don’t men in the Senate bond with each other? They do, the women concede, but usually at the gym, with less conversation, and in smaller, self-selected, less inclusive groups. “It’s who they choose to be with, rather than saying, ‘I need to understand who this person is that I don’t know well,’ ” Murray says.
Assistant Senate Historian Katherine Scott confirms that the women have something unusual going on. “The Democrats and Republicans come together, and they actually know each other pretty well—and they’re proud of that,” she says. “They’ve tried to establish this relationship outside of the institution as a way to make them more effective members within the institution.”
It’s easy to include everyone—easy to make reservations, some of the women joke—when your whole group totals 20. If there were 80 women in the Senate, as there are men, they might often end up in small groups of like-minded people, just like the men. But there’s also the intriguing possibility that more women could lead to a more functional Senate.
WIELDING THE GAVEL
There was a time when bipartisan partnerships—usually among men—produced results. The late Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy often worked with Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, most notably on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Arizona Republican John McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold are known for their law aimed at reforming the campaign finance system. A bipartisan “Gang of 14,” including three women, successfully averted a judicial-confirmation crisis in 2005. But today’s Senate is in a paralytic state on most issues, from jobs, judges, and guns to climate change, student loans, and the national debt.
That’s not to say some men aren’t trying to make things work better. Aspiring deal-makers in today’s Senate include McCain, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, and Tennessee Republican Bob Corker (who is freshman Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren’s mentor, at her request). An all-male “Gang of Eight” negotiated its way to a 68-32 passage of the Senate’s major achievement this year, a sweeping immigration-reform bill. And Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia (conservative Democrat) and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania (conservative Republican) produced a gun background-check bill that won wide praise. Still, it’s a sign of these polarized times that the Manchin-Toomey compromise failed in the Senate, and the House is balking at taking up the Senate immigration bill.
The depressing state of affairs gives congressional women an opening to make the case that more of them could mean less stasis. Part of their argument is that their caucus lacks such provocateurs as Republicans Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, who make a point of standing out and not sparing their colleagues. “They really don’t have among the women the equivalent of a Ted Cruz in either party. So there is a difference in style,” says former Senate Budget Committee aide Steve Bell, who worked on the Hill for years. The only possible exception, he says, is Boxer.
That judgment is based in part on Boxer’s outspoken advocacy for abortion rights and environmental protection, and most recently on her outburst in May when Republicans boycotted an Environment and Public Works Committee meeting on Gina McCarthy, Obama’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Among other things, Boxer—who chairs the committee—said her colleagues were holding McCarthy hostage to their “pro-polluter fringe philosophy” and advised them to “get out of the fringe lane.”
Yet for the past two years, Boxer has worked with polar political opposites James Inhofe of Oklahoma and David Vitter of Louisiana to shape and pass a $109 billion transportation bill and a $12 billion water-projects bill, and they and their aides have nothing but nice things to say about working with Madam Chairman on that legislation. “There’s a sweet spot there. You have to find it as chairman,” Boxer says. “I’m not telling you I’ll find it on climate change. I have found it on infrastructure.”
The women have found plenty of “sweet spots” in their roles as chairwomen. Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, who heads the Agriculture Committee, hammered out farm bills priced at nearly $1 trillion each with Republicans Pat Roberts of Kansas in 2012 and Thad Cochran of Mississippi this year (the glow of success faded fast; the House killed this year’s bill and never took up last year’s). While the complex farm bill always requires coalition-building, Stabenow has clear bragging rights in at least one respect. In 2011, when the super committee was asking every House and Senate committee to recommend budget cuts, she says she reached out to her Republican counterpart in the House and they produced the only bipartisan, bicameral proposal on Capitol Hill.
Mikulski found common ground with Hatch over the idea of a women’s history month (the West, he told her, has a lot of pioneering women). That led to a more substantive partnership on modernizing the Food and Drug Administration. More recently, as chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, she worked with Alabama Republican Richard Shelby to turn out a six-month spending bill that softened the effects of the sequester and averted a government shutdown in March.
This year’s budget didn’t draw any Republican votes in committee or on the floor, but Democrats nevertheless credit Murray for her leadership as chairwoman of the Budget Committee. To produce the first budget in three years, she had to wrangle committee Democrats ranging from Manchin to self-described socialist Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “I went to every member. I held a lot of meetings. I listened to what people needed,” she says. Her talents were no match, however, for the intransigence of the 2011 super committee, which never came up with a way to avoid the sequester. “I was the only woman on that committee. It was a short lifetime. It was a very difficult challenge,” she says. “The divisiveness was so large between the House and Senate at that time, it was impossible to get together.”
Murray is close to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and along with Stabenow is part of the party’s seven-member Senate leadership. She recently presided over a better-than-expected Democratic cycle in her second stint as chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Murray and North Carolina Republican Elizabeth Dole (back in 2005-06) are the only women who have ever served in that capacity in either party. Feinstein and Ayotte also are among the women who have taken on non-stereotypical roles. Feinstein is hugely influential as chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, in particular as a defender of the administration’s drone and data-collection programs. Ayotte, elected in 2010, quickly joined defense hawks Graham and McCain to become a chief critic of Obama on the deadly attacks on U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya, and other foreign policy issues. In a New York Times rating last month of Sunday talk-show appearances of senators since 2010, Feinstein was the top woman with 20, and Ayotte was second with 11.
Some of the strongest bipartisan relationships are among the women themselves. Ayotte says she has “a very good working relationship on behalf of our state” with Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. And Gillibrand remembers the support she received from three Republican women—as well as Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu—when she was trying to help 9/11 first responders who had inhaled toxins at Ground Zero and now were ill and even dying. Landrieu, drawing from her Hurricane Katrina experience, advised Gillibrand on how to get other senators to care about the issue. Maine Republican Olympia Snowe worked with the New Yorker on how to cover the cost. Snowe, Collins, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski went into the GOP caucus every week, Gillibrand says, and asked, “Why aren’t we standing with first responders?” She credits their advocacy and advice with getting the bill passed.
Mikulski says women have made particular efforts to visit the states of their ranking Republican committee and subcommittee partners to get familiar with their constituents. The list includes Stabenow’s trip to Roberts’s Kansas, Boxer’s visit to Vitter’s Louisiana, and Mikulski’s travel to Shelby’s Alabama. Then there was Mikulski’s trip to that Houston rodeo with Hutchison when they were chairwoman and ranking member of an Appropriations subcommittee. The self-described “urban gal” from Baltimore, laughing at the memory, says a tall Texan “hoisted” her onto a buckboard. Hutchison “was on a Palomino holding a flag. And we circled the Astrodome together to ‘God Bless America.’ ” Hutchison’s inscription on the photo commemorating the day reads, “To a great sport.”
A search by the Senate historian’s office for reports of men making similar trips in recent years did not turn up anything. But there’s no conclusive evidence that these trips or others with similar opportunities for bonding are limited to women—or that the women are correct in their insistence that in general, women are better at building consensus. Kathleen Dolan, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee), says there are reasons for Senate collegiality that are unrelated to gender, among them the fact that so many of the women are Democrats and “the institutional incentives are more focused on collegiality.” That is, unlike in the House, any one senator or a minority of 40 can gum up the works, so negotiation and accommodation are—or should be—the norm.
Researchers say women’s life experiences and personalities may give them a little extra strength in that area. Still, “that’s not where you’re going to find the real impact of diversifying,” says Michele Swers, author of Women in the Club, a 2013 book about Senate women. “The main impact is in the policies they’re pushing.”
INTO THE MAINSTREAM
Swers offers statistical as well as anecdotal evidence that being a woman affects the way senators look at policy questions, what priorities they set, and the types of solutions they propose. There are countless examples of that female perspective at work. The issues are as volatile as sexual assaults in the military and as quiet as improving coverage of autism treatment for the children of troops. The autism amendment “didn’t really get any press,” Gillibrand says, and senior Republicans opposed it on the floor last fall. But it passed 66-29 with all 17 women then in the Senate voting yes.
In two recent examples from the immigration debate, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar sponsored a successful amendment to protect undocumented victims of elder abuse. Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono, along with Murray and Murkowski, pushed to balance a new preference for immigrants with desirable skills and education. Hirono said bias against women in some countries has blocked their access to education and careers, and without changes, the proposed reform “essentially cements unfairness against women into U.S. immigration law.” Many senators acknowledged she had a point, but her amendment was part of a package that did not make it to a vote.
The 2010 Affordable Care Act is a strong example of why women need to be in the room. Four women sat on the Finance Committee at that time—Stabenow, Snowe, Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, and Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln, who lost her seat later that year. “The four of us were significant over and over again,” Stabenow says, on issues such as school-based health clinics and mental-health care as well as women-specific concerns such as maternity care, which spurred a viral exchange over whether insurance plans should be required to cover it. (Arizona Republican Jon Kyl: “I don’t need maternity care.” Stabenow: “Your mom probably did.”) Stabenow says she’s now advocating for the child-care tax credit in weekly discussions of the committee’s latest big project, tax reform.
The women of the Senate, including Hillary Rodham Clinton while she was there, have also been longtime champions of the women of Afghanistan and the Middle East. They pressed for women to be included in the provisional government in Kabul. They broke away from official congressional itineraries to meet with women who otherwise would have been ignored, in Afghanistan, Egypt, and elsewhere. Boxer says Afghan women have come to see all the Senate women in their offices. “I think they know we have their back,” she says.
The highest-profile crusade uniting the women these days is their effort to improve how the military handles sexual assaults. The sheer size of the women’s contingent on the Armed Services Committee—seven members—has made them a formidable, aggressive force in questioning military brass and shaping legislation (one senator, North Carolina Democrat Kay Hagan, even headlined a press release “Hagan Questions Top Military Leaders on Sexual Assault”). The large number of women also has given rise to multiple approaches to the problem—particularly the split between Democrats Gillibrand, who wants military prosecutors to handle the cases, and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who wants to keep them in the chain of command.
Gillibrand minimizes those differences, noting that the Senate women have agreed on 90 percent of the path forward. Her amendment failed in committee, but she is still hoping to get 51 votes for it on the Senate floor. She’ll have a cheerleader from afar in Snowe, who was on the phone with National Journal as Gillibrand was learning that the committee would reject her amendment. “That is really regrettable,” said Snowe, who retired in January. She said she got the law tweaked to address the same problem back in 1997, though it kept the responsibility within the chain of command. “Obviously, it’s not working,” she says. “Here we are 16 years later. We continue to fight yesterday’s battles—even last century’s.”
Women have had their share of victories over the years, as Snowe acknowledged in a farewell speech reflecting on a career that began in the House in 1979. “That was a time in America when child-support enforcement was viewed as strictly a woman’s problem, a time when pensions were canceled without a spouse’s approval, a time when family and medical leave wasn’t the law of the land, and a time when, incredibly, women were systematically excluded from clinical medical trials at the National Institutes of Health—trials that made the difference between life and death,” she said. Snowe and former Democratic Rep. Pat Schroeder, cochairwomen of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, were in the forefront of changing all that.
But there was still more to be done. Hutchison, who took office in 1993, recalls trying to make sure health insurance plans covered mammograms (“which, amazingly, has been a question”) and partnering with Mikulski in the mid-1990s for a law allowing homemakers to contribute to IRAs (Hutchison says she told House Republicans in charge of revenue bills that it was “a travesty that we haven’t dealt with this.” They found the money to make it happen.) In her farewell speech, she talked of working with Clinton on Vital Voices, a global partnership to encourage female leaders in emerging economies; of passing the Feinstein-Hutchison Breast Cancer Research Stamp bill that raised $72 million for research; and of teaming with Feinstein to create a national Amber Alert system to aid the rescue of abducted children.
The traditions, and the evolution, continue. Feinstein, now one of three women on the Judiciary Committee, was the only one on the panel during confirmation hearings in 2005 for Chief Justice John Roberts and in 2006 for Justice Samuel Alito. She took her role very seriously. “I have a special responsibility to find out whatever I can about his views on women’s rights,” Feinstein said of Roberts, in Swers’s account of the episode. Feinstein did the same for Alito and cited their positions on abortion in opposing both of them.
That “special responsibility” was not unique to Feinstein. Boxer recalls her 10-year tenure in the House as a time when women carried “on their back” every issue that was thought at the time to relate solely to women, such as child care and reproductive health. “In those years, we did have a much larger constituency than just our House district,” she says. “Women all over the country would look to us on some of these issues of gender equality.” A similar dynamic continues as women achieve more “firsts.” Murray heard from female veterans all over the country when she became chairwoman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee in 2011. “It really opened our eyes” to the need for women’s health services at veterans centers, she says.
One major difference now: “Women’s issues,” a phrase Murkowski says she never sees in her mind without quote marks around it, have gone mainstream. When Stabenow was a county commission chairwoman and opened the first shelter for victims of domestic violence in Lansing, she got calls accusing her of trying to break up the family. Now there’s a federal Violence Against Women Act broadly supported by men, and acknowledgment that “women’s issues” concern everyone. In fact, Swers’s analysis of the 107th and 108th Congresses (2001 to 2005) showed that those issues “routinely constitute at least one-third of the Senate agenda,” and almost every senator sponsored such bills. “It’s very true that more men step up today,” Feinstein says. “That is the big point: Women’s issues have become everyone’s issues.”
That’s eased the pressure on the Senate’s women to speak for all women and also to prove they are not preoccupied with women’s issues, a stereotype that some of them say is worrisome and some of them say they try to avoid. It remains the case that women are most often primary caregivers in their families, whether for children or elderly relatives, and they bring that experience to the front lines of legislating. “We all have to be generalists in the U.S. Senate. We all have to be advocates for our state,” says Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin. But she also says, “We can’t ignore the real-life experience that we bring to these jobs.” In her case, that has meant not only being the first openly gay person elected to the Senate, but also a woman who cared for the grandmother who raised her when she was in her 90s and in failing health. In the case of North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, it means being a survivor of breast cancer.
The issues traditionally associated with women often involve spending, regulation, and abortion rights, making them an awkward fit with the Republican agenda of social conservatism and cutting taxes, spending, and regulation. The disconnect may be at least partly why there have never been more than five Republican women in the Senate at one time. But GOP gains may be inevitable, given the numbers’ steady upward creep.
The new generation is epitomized by two mothers of young children: Ayotte, who says, “It’s kind of absurd that it took women coming to Congress” to force the inclusion of women in clinical trials, and Gillibrand, who is cooking up a women’s economic-empowerment agenda that combines her own ideas and those of others into a marketable, promotable package. The chief elements are a minimum-wage increase, paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, affordable day care, and universal prekindergarten.
Scanning that list, it’s tempting to say the more things change, the more they stay the same. But a closer look shows that’s not the case. The family-leave proposal builds on the unpaid leave now available because of the efforts of earlier Capitol Hill pioneers. The minimum wage is a nontraditional “women’s issue” that Gillibrand put on her list because she says nearly two-thirds of those earning minimum wage are women. Then there’s Obama. The first law he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Act making it easier for women to sue for equal pay. Universal pre-K, meanwhile, was a key proposal in the president’s most recent State of the Union address. The foundation for progress on these issues has been laid, but will Congress act? That will be a stiff test of their collegiality—and their clout.