Even though they make up only one-fifth of the membership, women are changing the architecture of the U.S. Senate in more ways than one.
They encourage collaboration and consensus building across party lines. And they generally play nice while getting work done.
But their sheer number — a record high of 20 — also led construction crews to begin expanding the ladies' bathroom off the Senate floor.
“A sign of the progress we are making,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire tweeted about the renovation that began recently.
Traffic jams in the two-stall bathroom have become a running joke, but the larger ladies’ room has become a symbol of some of the changes the Senate has seen because of the historic number of female senators.
Women now chair eight Senate panels, including the Senate Appropriations Committee that controls the purse strings to billions of dollars worth of government spending. They also hold spots on other highly prestigious panels including the Armed Services, Finance and Foreign Relations committees.
Having more women in powerful Senate positions has resulted in action on legislation and topics that would have faltered otherwise, said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat. Women have helped raise the profile of issues like sexual assault in the military, a longstanding topic that previously went nowhere for years on the Hill.
They also helped pass legislation on an effort to prevent medical drug shortages, which Klobuchar said men generally showed little interest in because “moms are the ones who worry about medication.”
Earlier this year, all four female Senate Republicans split with their party to join Democrats in voting for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which had lapsed during the previous Congress.
“These are not always women’s issues, but they are issues that might not have been addressed if we didn’t have so many women and women in positions of power,” Klobuchar said.
Just as important, if not more, is the potential for women to loosen up a gridlock environment and change the tenor of the Senate, said Debbie Walsh, director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics. Women are more collaborative, and they can set the tone for civility and respect in an atmosphere notorious for prickly partisanship.
“The women in the Senate seem to do the thing that most of the other members cannot — which is work outside of the chamber relationships that cut across party lines,” she said. “They’re able to talk to each other.”
Rep. Susan Collins, R-Maine, stressed that the women in the Senate span the ideological spectrum.
“I always push back the idea that we all think alike, or that we all share the same views on issues, even on the issue of what to do in response to the epidemic of sexual assaults in the military,” said Collins, the longest-serving female among Republicans.
“There are many different view among the women of the Senate, but there’s a common commitment and determination to solving the problem, or at least greatly lessening (it)," she said. “And that’s where women in the Senate make a real difference. Women tend be more collaborative, less concerned about scoring partisan political points and more focused on getting a solution. That’s not true of every woman senator on every issue, and I don’t mean to stereotype us in any way, but that has been my experience.”
What helps build that collaborative spirit are the bipartisan dinners held roughly every six weeks for all the women senators, a ritual that dates back to Collins’ freshman year in the Senate in 1997. Only three rules apply to the gatherings — no staff, no memos and no leaks.
The dinners have helped encourage a civility among the women Senators that many political spectators hope will contain partisan politics.
“I’m not going to tell you it’s a constant Kumbaya moment, but the women in the Senate seem to have the ability to transcend some of the partisan gridlock that people have become quite tired of,” Walsh said.