Twenty years after the “year of the woman” election, when a record number of female candidates joined the storied “Senate club,” female lawmakers will be seen in even greater numbers in the halls of Congress come January.
Senate Democrats have added four new female members and Senate Republicans have added one, bringing the female ranks in the upper chamber to 20, a historic high. It resulted in a net gain of two seats for the Democrats, for a 55-45 advantage over Republicans because the Senate’s two independents caucus with the Democrats.
Across the Capitol in the House of Representatives, a record 81 women were elected, with some races still undecided. Politicians, activists and scholars said the results signaled a new electoral era in which women, half the American population, were playing a role that more closely reflected society.
Issues to forefront
“As we increase the number of women, it brings to the forefront issues of women and families in a whole different way,” said Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, an organization that works to elect women who support abortion rights to political office. “Women bring a different life experience.”
In New Hampshire, the entire four-member congressional delegation — two senators and two House members, as well as the state’s governor — is now female.
And speaking of New Hampshire, among the current crop of female lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte of the Granite State is among several who are getting early mentions as possible presidential contenders in 2016. The others are Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
The new Senate women comprise two Democrats currently serving in the House: Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who will also become the first openly gay member of the chamber. Others winners with political résumés were former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, also a Democrat, and Deb Fischer, a Republican state legislator from Nebraska.
The most high-profile victor among the group, however wasn’t a current or former lawmaker at all but a Harvard law professor, who as a prominent consumer advocate is familiar with the ways of Washington. Democratic Sen.-Elect Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts led financial restructuring efforts for the Obama administration. She unseated a Republican, Sen. Scott Brown.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who led her party’s Senate campaign and herself was elected as the “mom in tennis shoes” in the 1992 watershed “year of the woman” election, said the Senate would be a different place next year, and that “will be good for the country.”
Her predecessor as the party’s Senate campaign chief, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, said he preferred to field female candidates.
“The electorate wants people to compromise and come together,” Schumer said. “Women are very good at doing that.”
The campaigns, however, weren’t always genteel. In general, the election was about the economy. But the hot button issues of abortion, contraception and equal pay dominated many races.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., began the cycle as the most vulnerable Senate incumbent. In increasingly conservative Missouri, Republicans saw her seat as a sure-fire pickup. But a crafty strategic move by McCaskill in the primary and some controversial comments about rape by her general election opponent, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., reversed the playing field.
“Everybody thought Claire McCaskill was going to lose,” said Schriock.
McCaskill and Democratic groups poured $1.5 million into Missouri’s three-way Republican primary race to help Akin win, gambling that he was the opponent she had the best chance of defeating. Akin, after winning the nomination, undercut his own campaign — and led many in his party to abandon him — with his comments about “legitimate rape” and suggestion that a raped woman somehow could prevent a pregnancy through her body’s natural defenses.
McCaskill went on to a comfortable 15-point win.
The effect of all the attention on rape and abortion and the presence of women on the ballot seem to have galvanized female voters, who, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, came out to vote in greater numbers. Almost all of the 23 Senate races showed gender gaps from 5 to 13 percent, according to exit polling.
“The composition of the United States Senate in the 113th Congress would look very different if it were not for the votes of women in these races,” said Sue Carroll, a senior scholar at the center. “It’s clear that in a significant number of U.S. Senate races, women and men preferred different candidates, and women’s preferences prevailed.”