Knocking at the Door : Voters Have Tripled the Number of Female Senators--to 6. Is That Enough to Crack This Male Bastion?


Senator-elect Carol Moseley Braun stopped by the Senate recently to get her photo I.D. After she had her picture snapped, a clerk promptly handed her a card emblazoned “Spouse.” The senator-elect coolly handed it back, murmuring, “Try again.”

For all the talk about plumbing--the Senate is finally installing a women’s bathroom in its inner sanctum--it hasn’t quite penetrated this august institution that it will soon have three times as many women members as before.

Of course, that’s only six women. Which is not a lot considering the other 94 members are mostly 50-plus coddled white men. But the increase raises the question of whether the Senate 6 can or will or should make an impact on a place that is so deeply, so wholly, so reverentially male.


Queried about how four additional female members might affect this men’s club, one senior Senate staffer burst out laughing.

“Oh you’d need at least 20 new members in skirts to make a difference around here,” she says. “There’d have to be a big, colorful brigade of women members, all with degrees from Harvard, carrying bloodied mallets from countless political battles.”

Extreme as she may sound, she reflects a cynicism among some women in Washington. They’ve attended too many meetings that have a patina of a high-minded Supreme Court debate but the undercurrent of a stag party to make them believe the Senate will ever change.

It is only recently that senators have become accustomed to interacting with women as equals. Fourteen years ago Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) became the first woman elected to the Senate without “connections.” Although a dozen women had preceded her, all of them were either appointed for a limited term by a friendly governor or had been preceded in Congress by their husbands.

None of the 14 women senators has ever been in a leadership position, nor has a woman Senator ever held a full-committee chairmanship. In general, the women lacked seniority, but experts agree that the pervasively male culture held them back.

So as Braun (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) join incumbents Kassebaum and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), there is hope and expectation that the new women can’t help but have an effect, albeit a subtle one, on the climate and concerns of the Senate.


Ann Lewis, a Democratic consultant from Boston, is typical of the optimists:

“Listen, the minute they sit in that chamber, they’ll change the whole culture of the place. You won’t hear the stupid jokes. You won’t see so-called women’s legislation shunted aside. For the first time you’ll hear speeches about abortion and child care and family leave made by people, women, with a degree of authority.”

Ruth Mandel, a Rutgers University professor who heads its Center for the American Woman and Politics in New Brunswick, N.J., says she already can detect an effect.

“They’re not simply appearing in Washington unnoticed,” she says. “They are being watched and written about. And when the cameras pan the room when President Clinton gives his State of the Union address, it won’t be a solid sea of suits. There will be 54 women from the House and Senate there, and that sends a message to our children and grandchildren about who’s suitable for leadership and to young women thinking about their futures.”

Mandel also believes that if the Senate 6 follow the example of the 1,000 women who have served in state legislatures, they could make a significant difference over time.

“We’ve found in our research that women have different perspectives and if you get enough of them in a legislative chamber, they’ll be more likely to give priority to women’s issues,” says Mandel.

But is six enough?

“Well, not really,” she says, admitting, “I wouldn’t even do a research project on 6%. But it’s a start.”


Anita Dunne, a veteran congressional aide, couches her answer about the women’s impact with a lot of ifs.

If the new women are able to unite around an issue, and if they are perceived as team players most times by the senior male members, and if they use their public relations advantage deftly, then maybe they’ll be effective senators and the “agents of change” voters hoped for.

“Can you imagine what would happen if the five Democratic women all marched into a caucus meeting or just into (Sen. Majority Leader) George Mitchell’s office united behind a cause or bill?” asks Dunne, a top aide to Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.). “He’d be hard pressed to ignore them.”

Legislation is driven by all sorts of Senate subgroups--the Southern Conservatives, the Prairie Populists, the Western Democrats, to name a few. Dunne and others expect that the women, working with male senators who have long lobbied for women’s issues, could form a powerful bloc.

Says Dunne: “They’re powerful symbols, and how they’re (received) will be closely watched.”

They’ve already been closely criticized.

When none of the five female Democrats jumped at Sen. Joseph Biden’s very public offer to be on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the knives came out.


Sen. Alan Simpson, the Wyoming Republican who led his party’s attack on Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings last year, was appalled. Why weren’t these women who campaigned on the momentum of outrage over those hearings eager to join the committee? he asks.

“I hope these people are not just here to continue to talk about the Judiciary Committee but not have the courage to join it,” Simpson says.

Like their male colleagues, the female senators are aware of concerns about the economy and have been angling for assignments on the all-powerful Appropriations, Finance, Banking and Commerce committees. Committees like Judiciary and Ethics, by contrast, are considered less attractive.

Feinstein recently was the first of the women to announce she was willing to be on Judiciary, although her first choice remains Appropriations, a rare appointment for a freshman. She denied making a deal--joining Judiciary in return for a seat on Appropriations.

The dilemma over committee assignments represents a challenge all the female senators face: how to champion the nation’s women and at the same time represent constituent concerns. Add to that the pressures of party loyalty and of being a part of insider Washington without mortgaging one’s integrity.

In the short time since the election, Feinstein says she has already experienced the frustrations of this balancing act and of being new in an institution so hidebound.


“While I’ve encountered recognition that things need to change,” she says, “I’m not sure the Senate is willing to change its procedures very much to accommodate the new women.”

She declined to be more specific, noting, “I need to give it a lot more time.” But she did point out that when she met with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D.-Mass), he talked to her about what it was like 30 years ago when he was a freshman and how things were even more static than they are today.

“I’m one who respects tradition,” Feinstein adds, “but I ran in a big state with a lot of needs, and I hope I at least have a chance to get some things through.”

There are no plans for the Senate 6--or even just the five Democrats--to officially form a caucus or to meet regularly, as women in the California Legislature do every Wednesday in Sacramento. They review so-called “soft issues” of family and women’s legislation and plan strategies. (Their bipartisan cooperation has made the California women one of the most powerful forces in the male-controlled Legislature.)

But Feinstein and Boxer, at least, have pledged to join forces.

They repeatedly sent messages during the campaign that, if voters supported both of them, they would team up, like a duo in a buddy movie. They promised to use their similar views as well as their gender and celebrity to turn out a California delegation with “clout and dynamism,” as they called it.

Other women, in the Senate and House, already have an informal network, Ann Lewis points out.


“They’ve done joint fund raising,” she says. “They’ve had more opportunity, in fact, to be together than any other group getting elected. They have a shared history; they have jokes. Their friendship has already begun.”

But such networks can become elusive, even lost, in the sometimes-Byzantine atmosphere of the Senate, where “playing ball” with the leadership is essential. In fact, unless the Senate 6 click in line, they may run up against more time-honored traditions than they would have imagined.

“If you are the one or two women, it’s hard enough to get oriented and do the job effectively,” says a Senate aide who has watched Barbara Mikulski over the last six years. “But it’s even harder to also take on the role of spokeswoman for change without having the men look at you with skepticism. Barbara is very sensitive to the ‘eye-rolling’ factor every time she opens her mouth.”

Apparently the greatest concern among many male senators is whether the new women will be team players.

What does it mean to be a non-team player?

“Bring up things one wants to vote on, tie up the Senate procedurally when everyone wants to leave, attack one’s own party’s nominee for, say, a Cabinet post,” according to a male senator who noted that conservative Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) is considered more this “type” than, say, Kassebaum.

“If either of the Gentleladies from California, as they’ll be called, do this type of thing,” cautions the senator, who asked not to be quoted on the record, “she’ll find herself on the outside the way Helms often does.”


The Senate has long been deemed indifferent to women’s voices and concerns, and the explosive televised Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings did more to confirm that indifference in many women’s minds than the bleak statistics on women in Congress.

Several Senate aides speculated that if their bosses weren’t chastened by the Hill/Thomas hearings, and if they weren’t impressed by the support women candidates found at the polls in November, allegations of sexual harassment lodged recently against three members--Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Dave Durenburger (R-Minn.) and Bob Packwood (R-Oregon)--could be the final wake-up call.

“In the next two years, if some of these charges are reviewed by the Senate Ethics Committee,” says Anita Dunne, “the senators could find that sexual harassment will do to their image what the check-bouncing scandal did to the House.”

Many women working in the Senate--they earn 78 cents for every $1 earned by their male counterparts--seem to harbor hope that the Senate 6 will be shining examples of integrity.

Says a female economist who spent several years working on a high-profile Senate committee: “I only hope the women occasionally stand up and say ‘This is bull’ and cut through the decorum without destroying the order it creates to get to the heart of critical issues.

“I look at the voting terrain of the Senate as kind of a vast sea of political protection in which there are a few islands of true substantive decision making. It would be nice to see women make those islands bigger.”


One woman who stood up courageously in the Senate was Margaret Chase Smith.

On a rainy Thursday in June, 1950, Smith, at the time a first-term senator from Maine, delivered “A Declaration of Conscience,” as she called it, denouncing Wisconsin’s Sen. Joseph McCarthy (without referring to him by name) for his exploitation of hate and intolerance. Some time afterward, Bernard Baruch noted: “If a man had delivered it, he would have become the next President.”

Rep. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Me.) recently had a sense of how fragile women’s history in the Senate remains.

Snowe was being honored at a fund-raiser and had invited Smith, now 95, and Kassebaum to Bangor, Me. As the three were driving to Bangor, a truck on the other side of the highway spun out of control and headed toward their car. Snowe, in the front seat, was stunned by fear. She realized the accident could have wiped out a good portion of women’s history in the U.S. Senate.

“It’s pathetic,” says Snowe, “but women in the Senate still have a ways to go.”