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Murray’s 10,000th vote marks a new era for women in the Senate

Senator 'symbolizes a moment for women's political history'

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.,
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Patty Murray’s history-making 10,000th vote in the Senate last week as the first woman to reach that mark is the latest milestone in a long career that has seen her break several records in the chamber long dominated by men. 

The Washington Democrat also was the first woman to lead the Senate Veterans Affairs and Budget committees, and the first woman to serve as president pro tempore.

“It’s significant in some ways that it is her,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “Besides all of the substantive things that she’s accomplished, she really symbolizes a moment for women’s political history.” 

Murray’s path into politics began in 1980 when Washington discontinued a preschool program that her young children attended and where she volunteered. She bundled her children into the car and drove them to the state capital to lobby for restoration of the funds.

Her efforts were met with condescension, with one state lawmaker telling her she was “just a mom in tennis shoes.”

She responded with a statewide campaign of parents to get the funds restored. That was followed with a four-year term on her local school board and then a four-year term in the state Senate. 

“I figured that I could sit at home and say, ‘Oh, well, that’s too bad,’ or I could get involved and be a part of the decision-making process,” Murray later wrote in “Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate,” a book she co-authored with the eight other women senators of the 106th Congress.

Murray turned that mom-in-tennis-shoes insult into a campaign symbol when she ran for the Senate in 1992, helping her to stand out in a male-dominated political world. 

“So many women have faced not being taken seriously because they were women,” Walsh says. “She turned that into her power.”

Women have only been in the Senate since 1922. The first woman to serve in the chamber was Rebecca Latimer Felton, a Georgia Democrat who filled a vacant seat for one day. Nine years later, Hattie Caraway made history as the first woman elected to the Senate, serving until 1945. And Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to serve in both chambers of Congress.

Scholars point to the 1991 Anita Hill hearings as another pivotal moment.

There were only two women in the Senate, Kansas Republican Nancy Kassebaum and Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, when Anita Hill testified that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. No women had ever served on the Judiciary Committee at that time. 

It was a “collective moment when women … had a real visual of how white and how male the U.S. Senate was,” Walsh recalls. “Seeing a young Black attorney, law professor, speaking her truth to nobody that looked like her.”

Walsh says that set the stage for the 1992 elections, dubbed the “Year of the Woman,” the first time four women were elected to the Senate at the same time — Murray, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and former Sens. Barbara Boxer and Carol Moseley Braun.

Only 32 other senators have ever reached the 10,000-vote milestone. Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, are the only current senators to have done so.

“This is kind of a confluence of two different situations,” says Mark Harkins, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. “One, women weren’t able to build up a 30-year career. And more recently, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of Senate votes per year.”

Harkins notes that the Senate cast nearly 1,000 roll call votes during the 117th Congress

Murray cast her 10,000th vote on April 20, during debate on a bill to reauthorize the U.S. Fire Administration. She voted in support of an amendment by Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that would have required the Federal Emergency Management Agency to establish a grant program for building and upgrading fire departments.

The milestone was celebrated by leaders from both parties, with Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader McConnell offering praise and congratulations.

Harkins also noted the significance of the vote: “It’s important that a woman has finally hit 10,000 votes because it indicates that while there’s not parity, there is the ability for a long serving female member to have impact.”

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