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Kavanaugh Will Face 4 Female Senators. Why Not More?

Supreme Court hearings shed light on Senate’s gender gap — and other panels skew even more male

The Senate Judiciary Committee has no female Republican senators on it. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
The Senate Judiciary Committee has no female Republican senators on it. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)


As the Senate Judiciary Committee weighs its next move on Brett Kavanaugh, only four women will have a voice. All of them are Democrats.

That’s hardly unusual in the chamber. While none of its 20 committees are entirely male, eight lack female Republicans.

Foreign Relations and Ethics have just one woman of any party — New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

The consequences of that underrepresentation can be lasting, especially as a major panel like Finance advances significant overhauls of the tax system and as the Judiciary Committee considers a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court with a nominee facing an accusation of sexual assault.

“Having more women on the Judiciary Committee would be very helpful and would certainly widen the points of view on several areas of debate,” California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s top Democrat, said in an email. “I’ve found it’s productive to work with Republican women on other committees.”

The problem is obvious: There are only so many female senators. The remedy may be just as apparent: Elect more.

Women make up more than half the U.S. population, but less than a quarter of the Senate. Twenty-three women currently serve in the chamber — 17 Democrats and six Republicans.

More women on committees would mean an expanded “pool of solutions introduced into the policymaking process,” said Frieda K. Edgette, founder of Courage to Run, a group that encourages female candidates of all political affiliations to get on the ballot. “Approaching the complex challenges of today with the singular perspectives of yesterday has long outweighed its usefulness.”

Why do some committees have more women than others? It’s complicated. Senate and party rules play a part.

Both parties, for example, bar members from sitting on more than one of the so-called “A” panels, including Appropriations, Armed Services and Finance. Another rule says members shouldn’t serve on the same committee as their state counterpart.

Personal preferences also matter. “What leadership tries to do on both sides of the aisle is to allow people to serve on the committees they want to serve on, openings permitting,” Shaheen said. “I think it’s deciding what you’re interested in, what your expertise is, how you can make a contribution, making that request.”


The lone woman

The Foreign Relations panel is made up of 21 total senators, and Ethics is made up of six. Shaheen is the only woman on both.

“It’s not a unique situation. Throughout my career, I’ve often been the only woman at the table,” Shaheen said. “It doesn’t necessarily feel different; it feels frustrating.”

As female politicians have reiterated time and again, every issue is a women’s issue.

“We’re concerned about the economy, we’re concerned about national security, we’re concerned about our defense and health care. What makes it different for women is we generally have different life experiences than men,” she said.

One of those has been sexual harassment in the government.

The Ethics Committee deals with sexual harassment allegations against senators. And the Foreign Relations Committee has seen sexual abuses rock the State Department. As #MeToo hits the national security space, it has brought men and women together on an issue that traditionally “has been of particular concern to women,” Shaheen said.

The other committees that lack Republican women are Banking, Budget, Finance, Homeland Security and Veterans’ Affairs. But Shaheen urges people to approach the problem by zooming out, not in.

“The effort is not so much how do we get a woman on every committee; the effort is how do we get enough women so women are going to be on every committee,” she said.

“If you look at when Democrats controlled the Senate, for example, we had two of the three money committees that were chaired by women,” she added, referring to when former Sen.  Barbara A. Mikulski chaired Appropriations and Sen. Patty Murray chaired Budget.

Break on through

Some committees are outpacing their counterparts. Thirty-eight percent of the members on the Agriculture panel are women — three Republicans and five Democrats.

Energy and Natural Resources, the only committee with both a female head and a female ranking member, comes in second at 35 percent. That committee, along with Commerce, tied for the most Democratic female senators, with six each.

The Energy figures are especially notable, since nearly every type of energy economy, be it electric power generation or fossil fuel extraction, has female workforce percentages below the national average, according to the Department of Energy’s 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment report.

At the beginning of 2018, the committee added two new female senators — Republican Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Democrat Tina Smith of Minnesota — to bring its total to eight.

“That might be a record number of women,” ranking member Maria Cantwell said during a Jan. 16 hearing, the first for the two new members. “And that’s a good thing.”

Republican Lisa Murkowski joked after the hearing that “women are taking over energy.”

Hirono on Kavanaugh Accusation: Men Need to ‘Shut Up and Step Up’

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