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.