Queens of the Hill: Women Move to Leadership Positions in Congress

Nancy Pelosi, who has served as San Francisco’s Democratic congresswoman since 1987, has become the most powerful woman in elective office in American history. As Speaker of the House, the 66-year-old mother of five and grandmother of six will be third in line to the presidency. But despite the obvious newsworthiness of Pelosi’s ascent, it may not be the most significant gain made by women these midterms.

Nor is the fact that more women were elected to office this year -- two new female senators and 10 new congresswomen. That brings female representation in both houses to 16 percent, which is respectable, but not so impressive compared to, say, Rwanda (where 49 percent of parliamentary representatives are women), and Sweden (47 percent).

More noteworthy is that the female newcomers belong almost exclusively to the incoming Democratic majority -- both new senators and eight of the 10 congresswomen. In the Senate, the women make up just under a quarter of the Democratic caucus, and comprise 21 percent of the Democrats in the House.

But what truly marks the 2006 midterms as a watershed for women in politics is the astounding degree to which women in both the House and Senate are now moving up into positions of power, in the leadership and at the head of key committees and subcommittees. Democratic women appear finally to have broken through what Pelosi calls the "marble ceiling." Women will not just be represented in the new Congress -- to a remarkable extent, they will be running the place.

The last time that women made big gains on Capitol Hill, they changed the institutions they served in and re-defined the policy debate, particularly among Democrats. It’s too soon to say how this year’s class of female lawmakers will make their mark, but it’s possible to glean some hints from their actions so far, and from a look at their relatively brief history in Congress.

Anita Hill’s skirt-tails

Historically, congressional women have had to trade feminism for power. Margaret Chase Smith was a classic example. From 1949 until 1973, the Republican "lady from Maine" was the only elected female senator. She operated, however, more like one of the boys, achieving seniority on the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees mainly by turning a blind eye to the sexism surrounding her. "I never was a woman member," she told one reporter. "Had I been one, I wouldn’t have been elected." Former Rep. Pat Schroeder of Colorado fared similarly when she became the first woman to sit on the House Armed Services Committee in 1973. F. Edward Hebert, the 72-year-old Democratic chairman (who boasted that his office had an "adult" and an “adultery” room) told her: "The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, and I am the Lord. You’ll do just fine on this committee if you remember that."

Nor were women accepted in the inner circles of power within either party. Schroeder worked on leadership races for colleagues Shirley Chisholm, Geraldine Ferraro, and Mary Rose Oakar in the 1970s and 1980s. "There is a secret ballot and boys can lie," said Schroeder. "All of them lost, of course. When we went around asking for votes, the guys told us they’d vote for us, but they didn’t."

Nothing much changed until 1991, when Clarence Thomas was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. Anita Hill, a Yale-educated law professor, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Thomas had sexually intimidated and embarrassed her when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The image of 14 white male Senators interrogating and humiliating the young black woman on national television incensed female viewers, symbolizing the lack of representation for women and their interests on Capitol Hill.

Back then, women made up only 6 percent of the 435-member House and 2 percent of the Senate -- and no women served on the Judiciary Committee. In fact, there had never been more than two women senators at any one time, and Barbara Mikulski was the only Democratic woman senator ever elected in her own right (in that she was not filling the seat of her deceased husband). There wasn’t even a women’s bathroom anywhere near the Senate floor. An iconic 1991 photo shows then-Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), and five other congresswomen climbing the white marble stairs to the Senate chamber to protest Hill’s treatment by the Judiciary committee. Known as "the women’s Iwo Jima," the photo encapsulates their standing in Congress -- principled, but powerless.

Thomas was ultimately confirmed, but the hearings inspired an unprecedented number of women to campaign for office, and the 1992 election year was dubbed the "Year of the Woman." In January of 1993, when the freshman class of the 103rd Congress arrived in Washington, 24 women representatives and five women senators swept into office on Anita Hill’s skirt -tails. A new breed of congresswomen -- unapologetic feminists -- had not only a voice, but strength in numbers (plus a newly built bathroom near the Senate floor).

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) was emblematic of this new crop of congressional women. Then a 43-year-old wife and mother of two, the former first-term state senator from the Seattle suburbs won Brock Adams’s long-held seat, which he had vacated under the cloud of sexual harassment and molestation charges. The ultimate Senate outsider, Murray was so unimposing that 91-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond mistook her for a page and groped her in the elevator one night during a late vote. Nevertheless, Murray began to change the Senate’s old-boy’s-club culture with homespun speeches about being a secretary and a solidly middle-class working mother. “Once you’ve worked in daycare, you can work anywhere,” she proclaimed.

The freshmen women also made their mark on the 103rd Congress in more far-reaching ways. That session, Congress passed 66 bills benefiting women and families. Issues like family leave, sexual harassment, abortion rights, violence against women, women’s health research, and gun control came into vogue because the newly elected women held such a clear mandate to champion them.

But when Republicans swept back into power in Congress in 1994, women’s issues largely vanished from the agenda. "My being here is like parsley on a potato," Schroeder told me at the time. Indeed, as Republicans mastered the art of ramming through bills with parliamentary style discipline and minimal input from the opposition, Democrats -- male or female -- were increasingly excluded from playing a meaningful role on congressional committees. Or, as Slaughter puts it, "Republicans treated us like scum." Frustrated, Schroeder left Congress in 1996. Slaughter and most of her female colleagues stayed on, keeping their committee seats warm and slowly climbing the ladder within the Democratic caucus.

House proud

The 2006 election inspired 244 women to run for Congress, the second largest number of women to do so since the 1992 election. But for those who won their races, the environment they’re entering is very different from that encountered by the class of ’93. Women are no longer novelty acts, but, in the Democratic caucus at least, have acquired real political clout. In the House, of course, Pelosi is the first woman Speaker.

Slaughter leads the Rules committee, arguably the most powerful in the chamber: No bill will reach the floor for a vote without her approval. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) co-chairs the Democratic Steering Committee, which formulates policy for the caucus, and Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-Calif.) serves as her vice chair. Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) have joined the nine-member team of chief deputy whips.

In the Senate, Sen. Murray is now the Democratic conference secretary, the fourth ranking member in the leadership. California’s senator, Barbara Boxer, is chief deputy whip and chairs the Environment and Public Works committee (she has also hired the committee’s first-ever female chief of staff). Her California colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, leads the Rules Committee. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), dean of the Senate women, is chair of an Appropriations subcommittee, and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) serve on the Senate’s most powerful committee: Finance.

What will women do with this hard-won power? After 12 years in the wilderness, Democrats are again in a position to champion women’s issues. Their ability to do so has improved immeasurably since 1994, and their intentions are clear. Slaughter has made a point of stacking the deck of the Rules committee with pro-choice Democrats. Sen. Murray’s list of priorities read like a feminist’s dream: invest in women’s health care, help victims of domestic violence, protect women in retirement.

Yet many so-called "women’s issues" of the 1990s -- health care, child care, education, and the minimum wage -- have become mainstream Democratic concerns in the intervening years. Causes that protect women’s economic and social equality -- championed by old-timer feminists like Schroeder since the 1970s -- will no longer be pigeonholed as special interests. And unlike Chase, Smith or Schroeder, the new women leaders have not been required to choose between feminism and power. Pelosi’s new agenda is family-oriented, and she has shown no signs of shying away from women’s priorities.

Democratic lawmakers have an additional interest in paying special attention to issues important to women: They owe them their electoral success. Women voters make up an increasingly large majority of Democratic voters nationwide, and helped decide the two elections that propelled Democrats into the Senate majority. In Virginia, 55 percent of women voted for Jim Webb (compared to just 45 percent of men), while in Montana, the other Senate squeaker, 52 percent of women supported Jon Tester, compared to 48 percent of men. "The Democrats are in power because women voters came out in historic numbers and elected these Democratic candidates because of their issues," says Ellen Malcolm, president of EMILY’s List, a political action committee that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office. All those factors mean it’s likely that issues important to women won’t be neglected over the next two years.

But most intriguingly, congressional women have been handed an unprecedented opportunity to help change the way Congress operates. The influx of women in leadership comes at a time when, after 12 years of heavy-handed GOP rule, partisanship has become uncommonly rancorous, even by Washington standards. Many of the newly empowered women promised before the election to restore civility to Washington, something the public is clearly hungry for. And after the election, Democratic women seemed determined to emphasize this point.

In her first post-election press conference, Pelosi proclaimed a "return to civility," pledging "partnerships with the Republicans." Slaughter announced that she would not treat Republicans on her committee the way she had been treated while in the minority. "I’m going to start out fair as all get-out," she told me. "The way I see it, every one of us represents about 650,000 Americans, and when you cut 50 percent out, you disenfranchise half the country."

Of course, Pelosi and Slaughter’s remarks could be just savvy political window dressing. However, studies on women’s participation in government have found that women do work more collaboratively than men. Greatly outnumbered, women have been unable to afford to operate like their male counterparts, and have worked across party lines even at the height of partisanship. "Women have historically had to lead from the foot of the table because they haven’t had power," said Marie Wilson of the White House Project, an organization that promotes the notion of a woman president.

This is particularly true in the Senate. Ever since 1992, Mikulski, who calls herself "Coach Barb," has held workshops to teach all new women senators, regardless of party affiliation, the lay of the land. "They look out for each other," says Democratic political consultant Mandy Grunwald, who worked on both Hillary Clinton’s and newly elected Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) campaigns in 2006. (Speaking to Larry King, Mikulski put it in military terms: "We’re like NATO. An attack on one is an attack on everyone.") To give just a few examples: On the day before 9/11, the women senators were all at Hillary Clinton’s house for a baby shower for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's (R-Texas) adopted twins. In 2005, a bipartisan group of Senate women stood together in opposition to the privatization of Social Security. And in 2006, Murray and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) wrote and passed a port security bill together. Once a month, the women senators all meet for dinner. “We are a team,” Murray said of her female colleagues shortly after the midterm. "We need to work together in a bipartisan way. It’s how women work, how we solve problems, and we want to bring that kind of feeling to the U.S. Senate again."

Is it possible that now that Democratic women are in power, they’ll stiff-arm Republicans, even Republican women, as remorselessly as Republicans did Democrats? Perhaps, but a beleaguered minority does not quickly lose its sense of solidarity. It’s highly likely there will be more comity than if men alone were running the Democratic Party.

Finally, in a little-noticed development, Democratic women may also play a leading role in one of the most high-profile issues facing the party over the next two years: corruption. It’s well known that exit polls showed that voters were unusually concerned about corruption among public officials this election. It’s been less frequently observed that another exit poll, conducted by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, found that voters perceived women lawmakers to be three times more trustworthy than their male counterparts. After the election, Pelosi sought to capitalize on this perception using pointedly domestic imagery, promising to "clean house” and “take the Speaker’s gavel from the special interests and place it in the hands of the children." Pelosi took much grief for backing her ally Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) -- a notorious earmarker with a less than squeaky-clean past -- for majority leader. But she’s already done far more to clean up her own side of the aisle than former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) did. Hastert let lawmakers like Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) -- who is under investigation for bribery -- keep his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee. In contrast, Pelosi swiftly moved to expel William Jefferson, who is being investigated for bribery and fraud, from the Ways and Means committee, and prevented impeached federal judge Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) from assuming the top position on the Intelligence Committee.

When Pelosi and the posse of influential women in the House and Senate take over Capitol Hill in January, a new chapter in women’s political history will begin to be written, and there will be much pressure to perform. The subjects of heightened scrutiny and criticism, not to mention commentary about their clothes and appearance, Pelosi and the others will be working under a microscope. But the advantages, of course, greatly outweigh the risks. "When I become Speaker of the House of Representatives," says Pelosi, "it will send a message to women across the country that anything is possible for them, that women can achieve power, wield it responsibly, and breathe the air at that altitude."


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