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From Leadership Posts, Women Said To Be Changing Senate Tone

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.

But 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.

This 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.

Mikulski is 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

Now, 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.

"There 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."

So, 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'

Several 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.

"Women 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 philosophy."

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.

"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.

Sen. 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

For 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.

"So 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."

"How 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.'"

So 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."

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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