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Election 2012 results: Women to reach landmark – 20 percent of senators

The female newcomers to the Senate include four Democrats and one Republican. While the economy was a top voter issue, other issues important to women such as abortion also factored in.

By Staff writer / November 7, 2012

Democrat Elizabeth Warren, center, waves to the crowd with her husband Bruce Mann (l.) during an election night rally at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel in Boston after Warren defeated incumbent GOP Sen. Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race, Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Michael Dwyer/AP

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Come January, a historic number of women senators will be taking up the pressing issues on Capitol Hill.

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That number will be 20, following the concession of Rep. Rick Berg (R) to Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in the North Dakota race Wednesday afternoon.

Women holding 20 percent of Senate seats is “an important symbolic number,” says Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University in Washington. “But we have to realize that ... overall, our political institutions are still overwhelmingly male-dominated.”

In 2010, Congress saw its first net loss of women since 1978, but now it’s back on track to making at least incremental gains in women’s representation, she notes.

In addition to Ms. Heitkamp, the female newcomers to the Senate include three other Democrats – Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii (whose opponent was also a woman) – and one Republican, Deb Fischer of Nebraska.

With two Republican women stepping down – Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Olympia Snowe of Maine – the partisan split among female senators will now be 16 Democrats and four Republicans.

Tuesday night was one of celebration for groups that back female Democratic candidates, with all six Democratic women up for reelection to the Senate prevailing.

“We saw debates on the Republican side that women didn’t think we’d be hearing in 2012 – a lot of talk about access to birth control, opposition to equal pay, very basic things for women,” says Jess McIntosh, spokeswoman for EMILY’s List, a group that backs Democratic women in favor of abortion rights who are running for office. “Voters decisively turned out and ... elected progressive champions who are going to put women and family first.”

In the Missouri Senate race, incumbent Claire McCaskill defeated Republican challenger Todd Akin, whose comments about “legitimate rape” generated controversy nationwide and cost him some support from his own party.

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