Come January, a historic number of women senators will be taking up the pressing issues on Capitol Hill.
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.
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.
While the economy was generally voters’ top issue, “in such a close election, the second most important issue can become critical,” and in many swing states, such issues included access to abortion, contraception, and fair pay for women, says Professor Lawless.
One takeaway for the Republican Party should be to make sure candidates can talk cogently about being antiabortion and put it in a broader context, says Penny Young Nance, president and CEO of Concerned Women for America in Washington.
“When you have one side saying there’s a war on women and you remain silent, that strategy doesn’t work,” Ms. Nance says. “Women clearly think about a range of issues ... and it doesn’t work to run on a single issue [of the economy].”
Ms. Fischer, a Republican state legislator in Nebraska, prevailed against former governor and senator Bob Kerrey (D), who ran for office after returning to the state from New York. “She has a strong record on life and on fiscal issues, and the people of Nebraska know her and like her,” says Nance, whose group supported Fischer.
Some of the newly elected senators are diversifying the institution in other ways as well. Ms. Hirono will be the first Asian-American woman, and Ms. Baldwin will be the first openly gay person to serve in the Senate.
Women of New Hampshire also made political history on Tuesday. For the first time, a state will have not only a woman governor – Democrat Maggie Hassan – but also an all-female representation in Congress – two Democrats in the House, alongside one incumbent Democrat and one incumbent Republican in the Senate.
“We’ve never seen anything like that before,” says Lawless, who notes that New Hampshire has broken other gender barriers, such as being the only state that has had a majority of women in its state Senate.
Women politicians are now less likely than in years past to express concern about a male culture in Congress or a bias against them in the media, Lawless says. The main reasons there aren’t as many women in office, her research shows, are that they are less often recruited by their parties and they are less likely to think of themselves as qualified, even if their qualifications on paper are equal to men’s. As more women are recruited to run for office, such perceptions will recede, she says.
No data are available to show if women in Congress work in a more bipartisan manner than men, Lawless says. But anecdotally, at least, their minority status in the Senate seems to prompt some level of finding common ground.
“Women, in the Senate especially, have a pretty good bipartisan relationship. They go to dinner regularly, they work with each other on legislation, they really show an ability to work across the aisle,” says Ms. McIntosh of EMILY’s List. “We’re hopeful that that dynamic continues.”
• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.