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Exhibit Showcases Women of the Senate

As a senior at Sarah Lawrence College in 1985, Melina Mara appeared poised for a future as a political woman.

That year, the political science major and onetime class president interned for former Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), spending days working on international women’s rights issues in the feminist icon’s Beaver Street law firm in Manhattan.

Last week, nearly two decades later, Mara stood in the Smithsonian Institution’s Arts and Industries Building proudly holding court among the black-and-white visages of female politicos dotting the walls of her exhibit, “Changing the Face of Power: Women in the U.S. Senate.”

Mara, a Seattle-based photojournalist, took the pictures over a two-and-a-half-year period beginning in 2001 following the historic 2000 elections in which the ranks of female Senators swelled to 13.

At that point she remembers thinking, “This is a story.”

The self-described feminist, who admits her career path took some unexpected turns, set about to capture this highly exclusive group of women in what is already considered the world’s most exclusive club.

The result: a collection of 35 images of the female Senators — who today number 14 — in the midst of endless hearings, constituent meetings, speeches at legislative press conferences and consultations with aides.

As testament to these Senators’ minority status in the august chamber, their feminine forms are often presented against the platoon of male figures that dominate the Senate’s professional landscape. And at the most basic level, sartorial contrasts provide much of the fodder for Mara’s lens. In one photograph, a cluster of “standard dark men’s shoes” circles around the more “groovy” aesthetics of Sen. Maria Cantwell’s (D-Wash.) silver-buckled heels. In another, the tiny Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who barely makes the 5-foot mark, mounts what is known as the “Boxer Box” for a presentation to Golden State constituents. A closeup of Cantwell’s pantyhose-clad calves could hold its own with any L’eggs commercial.

The effect of the Hill’s unending freneticism is also examined here. In one image, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) gazes forlornly from the shadows, the solitary arm of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) reaching out anonymously to touch her shoulder. In another, a fatigued Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) stares into a Dirksen Senate Office Building bathroom mirror, exhaustion darkening her usually sparkling green eyes.

“I think I realize how intense I am and how serious my work is and how I give it everything I have,” mused Boxer, whose own face gets the once-over in another photo.

There are moments of playful irony, too. Mara captures Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) peeking out from behind the dais at an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, with the caption reading: “Entering the Senate as a former first lady, Clinton was praised for keeping a low profile upon taking office.”

But despite Mara’s focus on the Senators’ professional lives, she hardly overlooks their maternal sides. Four of these women have young children at home — a factor that looms large over their day-to-day existence in the corridors of power.

“They have to balance their mommy life with being a Senator,” Mara says matter-of-factly.

Among these images are Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) flanked by her twin boys, Reece and Bennett, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) looking out over her desk, the foreground filled with photos of her children. In one, her son, Todd, sports a “Vote for my Mom” T-shirt. However, the most poignant example is perhaps Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) leading her 2-year-old daughter, Bailey, toward a phalanx of men in suits during a ceremony at the Capitol last fall commemorating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I didn’t even know she took that ’til I saw the picture,” said Hutchison, who brought her daughter to the unveiling. And then the beaming mother — holding her daughter protectively and gesturing toward the photo — gushed, “She said ‘Bailey’ so she knows” it’s her.

Recorded interviews of many of the Senators — conducted by veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas — give added shape to the show’s visual representations. The Senators riff on everything from future presidential picks — “I think Sen. Hillary Clinton has what it takes to go the distance,” says Boxer — to their memories of early struggles: “They could not pay attention to what I had to say because I had a run in my pantyhose,” Lincoln recalls of her first political debate.

Of course, much progress has been made since the not-too-long-ago days when female Members weren’t allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor, an assertion expressed again and again by these women.

Surveying the exhibit last week, one of the newest members of the club, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), said Mara’s work underscores the scope of female accomplishment: “It says you can do it all.”

“Changing the Face of Power: Women in the U.S. Senate” runs until Sept. 7 at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Dr. SW. The photographs, which Mara has deeded to the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for American History, will go on tour later this fall. A forthcoming book expanding on the exhibit will likely be published by the University of Texas Press sometime next year.

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