Diving into the men-only swimming pool: the history of women in the US Senate

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The female senator who kept to herself was derisively called “Silent Hattie.” The one who made a point of engaging and having a near-perfect record for voting was said to have a “fetish” for it. It should come as no surprise that the first women in the US Senate struggled to find their place in a male-dominated institution. Liza Mundy’s fascinating piece for Politico about the history of women in the Senate shows the trajectory from those early twentieth century days to the significant but incomplete progress we’ve made today. 

There are still merely twenty women in the 100-member institution. Only 44 have served in the entire history of the Senate. While female senators aren’t being shunted aside as aggressively as they were decades ago, it’s no surprise that the challenges our modern-day crop of Senate women face are not unlike those dealt with by women in all professions. Being part of the powerful, so-called great deliberative body does not isolate women from the same old gender issues:

  • Underestimating women’s abilities and doubting their expertise. Sen. Debbie Stabenow recounts an event that raised my blood pressure reading it, as it raised hers at the time. When she was chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee handling the farm bill, an older male lobbyist reached over and patted her hand. “I know it’s going to be tough,” he assured her, “but you’ll do the best you can.” Sen. Tammy Baldwin told Mundy that people “sometimes will turn to her male aide, ‘and won’t make the eye contact or have the conversation with a woman senator.'”
  • Refusal to accommodate women into the culture and meet their needs. By now, there’s been a lot of attention on the fact that the women’s bathroom near the Senate floor was terribly small, and senators had to fight to finally get extra stalls added. Mundy’s piece also points out that the Senate pool was men-only until 2008 because some of the men liked to swim naked (don’t think about that one too much). It took the intervention of a male senator, and a big fight, to change that outdated policy.
  • Objectification and comments on appearance. This problem got a great deal of attention when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand released her memoir, with stories about comments on her weight and appearance, including being told “I like my girls chubby!” by a senior senator. It’s very telling that senators Mundy talked to felt that “Gillibrand’s story is so run-of-the mill that they marvel she considered it worthy of mention.”
  • Groping and other forms of sexual harassment. In addition to harassment in the form of sleazy comments and objectification, there have been plenty of reports of even more egregious behavior. Sen. Patty Murray reported an incident in which Sen. Strom Thurmond tried to grope her breast, and Sen. Susan Collins noted that male senators had the enabling and infuriating response of laughing off women’s discomfort being around him.
  • Imposter syndrome. It’s common for women to sometimes feel like they don’t deserve to be where they are, something far less common among men. While none of the senators call it that, Sen. Claire McCaskill says, “There have been many times in my career that I have had a probably subconscious fear that somebody was going to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘What are you doing? You don’t belong here.'”

Mundy’s whole chronicle of how women have fought their way to find a place in the Senate is worth reading. Because of the struggles they face, many senators on both sides of the aisle have built solidarity and leaned on each other for support.

That relationship, however, has become more complex and conflicts amongst the women are more frequent. Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigned against now-Sen. Joni Ernst and pointed out that her positions were actually harmful to women (something Mundy grossly mischaracterizes as criticizing candidates for “not being woman enough”). Sens. McCaskill and Gillibrand had competing bills to deal with the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. Some would bemoan these fights, but I ultimately see them as signs of progress. While no one should pretend that fights around gender representation in the Senate are over, it’s an indication of progress when women can comfortably debate about policy and hold each other accountable. It’s an issue that will surely be the subject of much discussion as we go into the 2016 presidential race. There’s still an expectation that you would only have one woman, when of course we’ve had white men hashing it out in primaries for decades. Overcoming disagreements to offer support in navigating a old boys’ club is critical, but I still look forward to seeing more women making strong, impassioned defenses of their positions and fighting for change.

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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

4 thoughts on “Diving into the men-only swimming pool: the history of women in the US Senate”

  1. “I still look forward to seeing more women making strong, impassioned defenses of their positions and fighting for change.”
    Agreed. I want enough women in office that it goes without saying they act–and as seen as acting–as senators first, women second. I want enough women running for office that I can decide my support entirely on their policies, without concern over gender parity and other representational issues.
    (Which is another way of saying: I’m glad there are more women in Congress — AND I don’t want Joni Ernst anywhere near the laws I have to live under.)

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  2. Honestly, I would like to sit on the United State’s Senate and I would like to represent South Carolina my home state but my only concerns is my dad is set to the old ways, where the man where’s the pants in those situations

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    1. Don’t let that stop you. A lot of women who broke ground had to push aside those sexist statements when it was even harder than it is now and help clear the way for women who came after them. There are plenty of women in politics and elsewhere to prove that women deserve to be in these roles just as much as men do!

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