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For One Day Only, the Senate’s a Matriarchy

Mikulski, center, talks to female senators at her Women's Power Workshop. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Mikulski, center, talks to female senators at her Women's Power Workshop. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
 It might have been the first time this has ever happened: On Tuesday morning, as the Senate reconvened after a winter storm, every senator, staff member and page in the chamber was a woman.

“Now, this was not orchestrated in any way, shape, or form. We came in this morning, looked around and thought, something is different this morning. Different in a good way, I might add,” Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski said as she opened the session, with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, presiding. “But something is genuinely different, and I think it’s genuinely fabulous.”  

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The female-only convening during the Senate’s short morning session Tuesday may have been a mere coincidence, but it was also indicative of how times have changed.  

The 114th Congress has a record number of 108 female legislators, with 20 in the Senate, continuing the chamber’s record set by the 113th Congress. Murkowski and Collins chair Senate committees. And the first bill the Senate will consider this week is a bipartisan energy measure introduced by Murkowski and Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington.  

The bill is just one example of bipartisan work among female senators, who make a point to cultivate their bonds across the aisle by meeting every few months, which can include having some good, old-fashioned fun. The female senators from both parties recently went bowling at the White House  — an activity complete with monogrammed bowling shirts.  

A bipartisan group also gathers before each Congress for a “Women’s Power Workshop” to get to know one another. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., the most senior female senator, has organized the bipartisan meetings since 1992, an election dubbed “The Year of the Woman ,” which brought a historic 28 new women to Congress.  

“We’re not a caucus because we have different views,” Mikulski said at this year’s workshop,  “but we’re a force on how to get some things done.”  

But the workshop will lose its leader after this year, as Mikulski is retiring at the end of this Congress. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the third most senior female senator, is also retiring.  

Though it’s not clear who will take Mikulski’s place as the ringleader for the power workshop, a number of candidates are vying to join the ranks of Senate women.  

Four female House members have announced their candidacy for the Senate . Of the five open Senate races, those in California, Maryland and Nevada have top candidates who are women. The race for the Democratic nomination between Rep. Loretta Sanchez and Attorney General Kamala Harris in California marks the first time that the top competitors for a party’s Senate primary are women.  

Congress has also seen an increase in women staffers.  

Female pages first came to the Senate in 1971, after nearly 150 years a “no-girls allowed” policy. A source with the Senate sergeant-at-arms, which oversees the page program, said for the current semester the pages are evenly split, with 15 girls and 15 boys.  

At the staff level, the number of women staffers is nearly equal to the number of men, as well. According to the Legistorm database, of the nearly 6,700 staffers, almost 50 percent  are women, compared to slightly more than 50 percent who are men. But female staffers still face barriers related to their gender, including, according to the National Journal , being excluded from one-on-one meetings with their male bosses.  

Still, the women of Congress will persist. As Murkowski pointed out Tuesday morning, they didn’t even let a winter storm that paralyzed the nation’s capital get in their way.  

“So perhaps it just speaks to the hardiness of women,” Murkowski said on the Senate floor, “that you put on your boots and put your hat on and get out, slog through the mess that is out there.”  


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