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Women Now Knocking at U.S. Senate's Door

August 10, 1986|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is a Times editorial writer

Sisterhood of sorts may be coming to the U.S Senate. The door to one of the nation's most exclusive men's clubs could stand slightly more ajar after this November's election. There's an outside shot that, for the first time, four women might be U.S. Senators--hardly a critical mass, but perhaps enough to start influencing both the style and substance of legislation.

There has often been a random woman here and there, a widow from Oregon or Alabama or Minnesota--and occasionally a strong Republican woman emerges like Margaret Chase Smith of Maine or, now, Nancy L. Kassebaum of Kansas. But never has any Democrat been elected in her own right, never has a woman chaired a committee--never any real number of women at all. Women have found it far harder to be elected statewide to the Senate than from congressional districts.

Today there are two women senators, Kassebaum, who is not up for 1986 re-election, and Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), who is--facing a strong challenge from Gov. Bob Graham. Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski is leading in the Maryland Democratic primary; a Sept. 9 victory would virtually assure election in November, and Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods is an even bet in Missouri.

More women in the Senate would, "in fact and in appearance, form more of a power bloc than before," Woods said in a conversation not long ago. "We won't always agree or work together, but the potential is there. There'll be a need for other members to consider the impact of women," Woods said, speaking from her own experience in the Missouri Legislature. She recalled one debate a few years ago on stronger penalties for rape; the men in the legislature were almost joking about the subject, but the women members forced a serious debate and won.

Across the Capitol from the Senate, women are starting to make their presence felt--23 of them in the House of Representatives (see related story by Robert Conot on P. 1). That impact is still limited and difficult to judge "because we don't have enough women in this body to have a real bench mark," admitted Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.)

Even so, Schneider recalls the way Republican women coalesced in 1984 to urge President Reagan to be more responsive to women on issues like pension reform and Social Security in the face of the perceived gender gap. Republican and Democratic women also worked together that summer to win passage of pension reform legislation sponsored by Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro (D-N.Y.).

As important as the numbers, though, are the kind of women turning up in the U.S. Senate. Elected in their own right, not as somebody's widow. Independent. Kassebaum, for example, is widely regarded as a voice for moderation in foreign policy, willing to disagree with a Republican Administration on South African and Nicaraguan policies.

The contenders fit that pattern, too. Woods, after all, is from "show-me" Missouri and speaks of Eleanor Roosevelt as her role model. Then consider Mikulski, who won't fit the mold of a U.S. Senator--and not because she's only 4-feet-11 inches tall. "Feisty" has almost become her first name. Product of a Polish East Baltimore neighborhood, Mikulski is a former social worker who actively championed causes involving the poor, women and children during 10 years in Congress. As one woman said, "The good thing about Barbara is that you don't have to lobby her about some of these issues. She knows them instinctively."

Women may make the most difference in the Senate, at least at first, through the way they operate. "I don't feel that even if the number of women were four, eight or 10, it would affect the type of issues," Kassebaum said. The Senate considers issues regardless of gender, she insisted, adding that even if women were a senatorial majority, "we'd be just as divided among ourselves" as the current membership. "For example, Paula (Hawkins) and I don't see all the issues the same way."

But, said Kassebaum, "women are good at working toward consensus. Women are good negotiators. I have always personally believed that it's too bad we don't have a woman on the arms control negotiating team." Women come by this role naturally, she added, having long been buffers between family and the outside world as well as between family members. "Women also tend to have greater sensitivity to the fallout when the economy goes sour."

Woods amplified that idea: Women simply have "a different view of what power is." She sees power as potentially enlarging rather than diminishing, meaning power need not work against some other group. "You can stand tall without standing on somebody. You can be a victor without having victims," Woods often says in campaign talks.

"Caring is very central to many women and that is not a weakness but in fact a power. In setting future priorities, Woods believes "it will be healthy for the country to find this voice that has been missing. Some values have been unexpressed in the political process."

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