In 720 BC, at the founding of the all-male Roman Senate, historians documented, “Women were kept out of positions of power. They were not allowed to be senators, governors, lawyers, judges or any of the other official positions. Women were also not allowed to vote in elections. Although it was extremely difficult, some women overcame the many obstacles put in their way and managed to obtain positions of influence. However, success usually resulted in a great deal of male hostility…A man could legally kill his wife or daughter if they questioned his authority!”
By 1920, in the United States, 2,600 years later, women had made some progress, i.e., women could become lawyers and a man could no longer legally kill his wife or daughter if they questioned his authority!
Then, in 1922, with the ratification of the 19th amendment, women achieved the right to vote in national elections. That same year, additional progress was made when prominent society matron and white supremacist 87-year-old Democrat Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia became, by appointment, the first female U.S. Senator. However, she served just one day!
Obviously, progress is in the eye of the beholder!
In 1932, Democrat Hattie Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman elected to the Senate. In 1931 she had been appointed to fill her husband’s unexpired Senate term. A few months later, in a special election, she officially ran for the Senate. She told reporters, “The time has passed when a woman should be placed in a position and kept there only while someone else is being groomed for the job.” She was re-elected in 1938. In her 1944 re-election bid, she was defeated in the Democratic primary by J. William Fulbright.
Meanwhile, in 1940, Maine’s Republican Margaret Chase Smith began serving the first of her four terms in the House of Representatives. In 1948 she won election to the Senate, becoming the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. The moderate Smith vied for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination and became the first woman to be placed in nomination for the presidency at a major party’s convention.
Since 1922, only 44 women have served as Senators. Today, in the United States Senate, the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” there are now twenty female Senators, the most ever serving at one time. While women total over 50% percent of the population, only 20% of Senators are female.
Today’s 20 women Senators, starting with the returning veterans in order of seniority, with the year they first came to the Senate, their names, state and party affilliation, are:
- 1987 Barbara Mikulski (Maryland/D)
- 1992 Diane Feinstein (California/D)
- 1993 Barbara Boxer (California/D), Patti Murray (Washington/D)
- 1997 Susan Collins (Maine/R), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana/D)
- 2001 Debbie Stabenow (Michigan/D), Maria Cantwell (Washington/D)
- 2002 Lisa Murkowski (Alaska/R)
- 2007 Claire McCaskill (Missouri/D), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota/D)
- 2009 Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire/D), Kay Hagan (North Carolina/D), Kirsten Gillibrand (New York/D)
- 2011 Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire/R)
The 2013 freshwoman class of Senators, bringing the total of female Senators to 20, are:
- The first Asian-American Mazie Hirono (Hawaii/D)
- Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts/D)
- Deb Fischer (Nebraska/R)
- Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota/D) and
- The first Lesbian-American Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin/D).
Seven of the current Senators are Chairs of Senate Committees. They are:
Barbara Mikulski (MD/D), Tenure: 26 years, Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee
Date of Birth: 7/20/1936 in Baltimore, Maryland – Up for Re-election: 2016
Mikulski is the first female Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. She was a social worker in Baltimore and successfully organized communities against a plan to build a 16-lane highway through Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood. Her first election was a successful run for Baltimore City Council in 1971. In 1976, she ran for Congress and won, representing Maryland’s 3rd district for 10 years. In 1986, she ran for Senate and won. Since then she has been re-elected with large majorities and on March 17, 2012 she became the longest serving woman in the history of the United States Congress.
Dianne Feinstein (CA/D), Tenure: 21 years, Chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence
Date of Birth: 6/22/1933 in San Francisco, California – Up for Re-election: 2018
As California’s senior Senator, Feinstein assumed the Chair of the Intelligence Committee in 2009. She is also a member of the Senate Judiciary and the Senate Appropriations Committees. Senator Feinstein was the first woman to chair the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, and presided over the Inauguration of President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009. In addition, Senator Feinstein is affiliated with the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, Co-Chair of the Senate Cancer Coalition and of the Senate Women’s Caucus on Burma. She is also a member of the Anti-Meth Caucus, the Congressional Dairy Caucus and the Congressional Former Mayors Caucus.
Barbara Boxer (CA/D) – Tenure: 20 years, Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee
Date of Birth: 11/11/1940 in Brooklyn, New York – Up for Re-election: 2016
Boxer became a Senator in January 1993 after 10 years of service in the House of Representatives and six years on the Marin County Board of Supervisors. In November 2010, she was reelected to her fourth term in the Senate. Boxer also chairs the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, making her the only sitting Senator to chair two Senate committees. She is a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she chairs the first subcommittee ever to focus on global women’s issues. Senator Boxer is also a member of the Democratic leadership in the Senate, serving as the Chief Deputy Whip since 2005.
Patty Murray (WA/D) – Tenure: 20 years, Chair of the Budget Committee
Date of Birth: 10/11/1950 in Bothell, Washington – Up for Re-election: 2016
As Washington state’s senior Senator, Murray has served as a member of Senate Democratic leadership since 2007. Patty is a leader on education, transportation, budget issues, port security, healthcare, women, and veterans issues. In addition to being the first female Senator from Washington state, Patty served as the first female Chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee during the 112th Congress. In her home state, she was an advocate for a local preschool program targeted by state budget cuts organizing a grassroots coalition of 13,000 parents to save the program. Patty went on to serve on the Shoreline School Board, and in 1988 was elected to the Washington State Senate. In 1992, she ran for the United States Senate. Dramatically outspent, Patty ran a grassroots campaign and was re-elected in 1998, 2004 and 2010.
Mary Landrieu (LA/D) – Tenure: 16 years, Chair of the Senate Small Business Committee
Date of Birth: 11/23/1955 in Arlington, Virginia – Up for Re-election: 2014
Mary was first elected to the Louisiana state legislature at the age of 23. After serving eight years as a state representative and two terms as State Treasurer, in 1996 she became the first woman from Louisiana elected to a full term in the U.S. Senate. She is a member of the Energy and Natural Resources and the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Senator Landrieu introduced the RESTORE the Gulf Coast Act, which is a bipartisan, regional approach to address the immense economic and environmental damage to America’s Gulf Coast. The RESTORE Act will, for the first time, direct 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalties paid by BP directly to the Gulf Coast.
Debbie Stabenow (MI/D) – Tenure: 12 years, Chair of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee
Date of Birth: 4/29/1950 in Gladwin, Michigan – Up for Re-election: 2018
Stabenow first ran for office after leading a successful effort to stop the closure of a local nursing home. She was elected to the Ingham County Board of Commissioners when she was 24 years old. She was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives where she served for twelve years (1979-90) and to the State Senate where she served for four years (1991-94). She was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1996 representing Michigan’s Eighth Congressional District, she made history in 2000 when she became the first woman from the State of Michigan elected to the Senate. She has cut taxes for small businesses and authored a retooling loan program for advanced manufacturers.
Maria Cantwell (WA/D) – Tenure: 12 years, Chair Committee on Indian Affairs
Date of Birth: 10/13/1958 in Indianapolis, Indiana – Up for Re-election: 2018
With the help of Pell Grants, Maria was the first member of her family to graduate college. She was a successful businesswoman in Washington’s hi-tech industry and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2000 and again in 2006 and 2012. She cut taxes by ensuring that Washington taxpayers can deduct state and local taxes from their federal returns. She fought attempts by the Bush Administration to raise local electricity rates. When bankrupt Enron officials tried to charge Washington ratepayers for millions of dollars in undelivered electricity, Maria led the effort to stop Enron as well as leading the fight to stop drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
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