Five women are gathered around the dining-room table from Sen. Barbara Mikulski's childhood home. It's the centerpiece of her hideaway, an unmarked retreat in the U.S. Capitol, and, like the hideaway itself, it's a symbol of the distance all of them have traveled. The shelves and walls display testaments to Mikulski's long career: photographs, clippings, replicas of the space shuttle. One highlight is a picture of "Buckboard Barb" Mikulski in a cowboy hat and colorful Mexican-style vest, standing with former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison during a visit to Texas. Another is a series of photos that starts with two women and ends with 20, a visual display that is striking less for its drama than for its incrementalism. The modern history of women in the Senate is one of slow, hard-fought gains across three decades that have at last given them real clout -- or perhaps we should say the potential for real clout, since they serve in a Congress famous for gridlock, not accomplishments.
"This room, probably when Barbara Mikulski came in, was one of those rooms where there were cigars and a bunch of guys," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said during a recent discussion in the hideaway.
And now? "No cigars," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
"No cigars and a lot of hardworking women," agreed Murray.
Five senators in any small room will set the atmosphere crackling with authority and power, and that was true here despite the conspicuous absence of testosterone. You don't get to become or stay a senator without sharp political-survival skills, and the cool self-assurance that you belong in one of the world's most exclusive clubs. Most of the women also believe they make special contributions to the Senate -- in the issues they highlight, in their collegial style, and in the close-knit network they have formed, despite their differences.
The group's most arguable contention is that women have a particular talent for working with others. If you ask them what they bring to the Senate, almost all of them say things like this: more collaboration, less confrontation; more problem-solving, less ego; more consensus-building, less partisanship. Those are fixed perceptions, not just among the senators but, research shows, among voters as well. And there is plenty of evidence, in the form of deals made and bills passed, that women know how to get things done. That's especially true now that women chair eight full committees and many subcommittees. But are they really better at this than men? Historians and researchers say there are too few of them, and their arrival on the scene has been too recent, to draw any conclusions.
Sixteen Democrats and four Republicans make up the Senate women's caucus. They span the ideological spectrum from San Francisco-area liberals Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to tea-party favorites Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. The age spectrum runs from Feinstein, 80, to Ayotte, 45. Mikulski, elected in 1986, is the longest-serving woman in Senate history. The most measurable aspect of the ever-increasing presence of women, and so far the most significant, is their impact on national policy -- from making sure federal researchers included women in clinical trials, to the current show of force on sexual assaults in the military. Onetime "women's issues" such as health, education, child care, abortion, and pay equity are now prominent on the congressional docket. "If you made a list and flipped back a couple of decades, that list would be an agenda for outside advocacy groups," says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. "Those issues are now inside. And they're inside because there are women inside."
Another hallmark of the women is that they have re-created among themselves a bygone world, one in which senators drank together in the offices of their leaders or the Senate secretary; in which their families lived in Washington, and their kids played and went to school together, Democrats and Republicans alike. The women do it in part through their famously private dinners, begun 20 years ago to create what Collins calls a "safe space" for women to talk about their problems and triumphs, their children, their parents, and their passions. Held every couple of months at the Capitol, in restaurants, or at their homes, they are for senators only -- no press, no staff, no leaks, and, until recently, no men. That changed in April when President Obama, acting on a suggestion from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., invited them all to dinner at the White House. "We set our sights very high," Boxer says.
The members have thrown showers for women who are getting married or adopting children. They socialize with their families at each other's homes. They run together and discuss how to juggle a Senate career and the responsibility of raising young children. Mikulski recently invited all 19 of her female colleagues to her office to update them on developments regarding sexual assaults in the military. Feinstein, elected in 1992, often takes new senators to lunch to advise them on how to run a Senate office. "We're not a clique. We're not a sorority. We're not a club," she says. "But it's very easy to talk to women. That's a real plus."
Don't men in the Senate bond with each other? They do, the women concede, but usually at the gym, with less conversation, and in smaller, self-selected, less inclusive groups. "It's who they choose to be with, rather than saying, 'I need to understand who this person is that I don't know well,' " Murray says.
Assistant Senate Historian Katherine Scott confirms that the women have something unusual going on. "The Democrats and Republicans come together, and they actually know each other pretty well -- and they're proud of that," she says. "They've tried to establish this relationship outside of the institution as a way to make them more effective members within the institution."
It's easy to include everyone -- easy to make reservations, some of the women joke -- when your whole group totals 20. If there were 80 women in the Senate, as there are men, they might often end up in small groups of like-minded people, just like the men. But there's also the intriguing possibility that more women could lead to a more functional Senate.
Wielding the Gavel
There was a time when bipartisan partnerships -- usually among men -- produced results. The late Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy often worked with Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, most notably on the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Arizona Republican John McCain and Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold are known for their law aimed at reforming the campaign finance system. A bipartisan "Gang of 14," including three women, successfully averted a judicial-confirmation crisis in 2005. But today's Senate is in a paralytic state on most issues, from jobs, judges, and guns to climate change, student loans, and the national debt.
That's not to say some men aren't trying to make things work better. Aspiring deal-makers in today's Senate include McCain, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, and Tennessee Republican Bob Corker (who is freshman Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren's mentor, at her request). An all-male "Gang of Eight" negotiated its way to a 68-32 passage of the Senate's major achievement this year, a sweeping immigration-reform bill. And Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia (conservative Democrat) and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania (conservative Republican) produced a gun background-check bill that won wide praise. Still, it's a sign of these polarized times that the Manchin-Toomey compromise failed in the Senate, and the House is balking at taking up the Senate immigration bill.