Critical mass

Tammy Baldwin (D., Wis.) will help bring the U.S. Senate's complement of women to a record 20.
Tammy Baldwin (D., Wis.) will help bring the U.S. Senate's complement of women to a record 20. (ANDY MANIS / AP)
Posted: November 26, 2012

By Jamie Stiehm

WASHINGTON - Two women dashed by the Ohio Clock in the Capitol recently. They were Democratic Sens.-elect Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin, who had come to town to meet with party leaders and get a feel for the powerful, privileged place.

It was a moment to be marked in our democracy's citadel. Warren (D., Mass.) and Baldwin (D., Wis.) are the outspoken stars in a class of five new female senators whom the wind just blew into Washington. Although two women are retiring from the chamber (Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas), the column of newcomers brings the Senate's complement of women to a historic record of 20. Massachusetts and Wisconsin had never elected a female senator or governor, suggesting a cultural resistance that is breaking down.

The female side of the new Senate will have a clear Democratic bent - 16 out of 20. You might say Republicans lost this election in more ways than one.

The long, bitter campaign may have brought America to a tipping point that will change our children's lives, if not our own. The Senate 20 represent the most significant such watershed since 1992's "Year of the Woman," when Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, and Patty Murray were elected.

Many of the experts somehow overlooked this result of the rumbling under our feet this fall. There is evidence that it could presage a departure from business as usual in the upper chamber.

At what point does a member of a minority cease to feel singled out and judged according to her race or gender? Studies by the military and its academies have found that it's when the ranks of that minority reach roughly 20 to 25 percent. That is when the institutional culture starts to change and bend, and when outsiders start to feel that they belong.

The Senate milestone invites us to consider how long it has taken to get this point from the advent of women's suffrage in 1920 (which itself was a long time coming). Before the 1992 election, only two of the 100 senators were women. The number stayed in the single digits long after the sexual harassment psychodrama of Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearings provoked a tide of female fury.

This time around, the "war on women" and reproductive rights may have helped motivate voters. It certainly helped Missouri's Claire McCaskill hang on to her Senate seat after her opponent spoke of "legitimate rape." Going forward, it's hard to imagine any senator uttering such a phrase on the floor.

The large coalition of pro-choice female senators (nearly all of them, including Republican Susan Collins of Maine) will be involved in other pressing issues, of which the nation has plenty. Women are good at picking up the pieces, which may be part of the reason their time has come.

From listening to them, it seems the group will be most concerned about the economy and other domestic issues, including consumer protection, challenges facing middle-class families, student loans, and Medicare. Led by Baldwin, the first openly gay senator, the Democratic women are also likely to support marriage equality. On the foreign policy front, making new enemies and waging more wars will be very low on their list.

Minorities who would integrate exclusive clubs benefit from the guidance of elders. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.), a longtime voice in the wilderness who now stands as the dean of the Senate women, fills that role. Under Mikulski's leadership, female senators from both parties have met regularly to compare notes and strategies over the years. This kind of mentoring and friendship will boost the morale of the women of the Senate, who are poised to become more emboldened and empowered than ever before.


Jamie Stiehm is a Creators Syndicate columnist. She can be reached at jamiestiehm@verizon.net.

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