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Knocking at the Door : Voters Have Tripled the Number of Female Senators--to 6. Is That Enough to Crack This Male Bastion?


Senator-elect Carol Moseley Braun stopped by the Senate recently to get her photo I.D. After she had her picture snapped, a clerk promptly handed her a card emblazoned "Spouse." The senator-elect coolly handed it back, murmuring, "Try again."

For all the talk about plumbing--the Senate is finally installing a women's bathroom in its inner sanctum--it hasn't quite penetrated this august institution that it will soon have three times as many women members as before.

Of course, that's only six women. Which is not a lot considering the other 94 members are mostly 50-plus coddled white men. But the increase raises the question of whether the Senate 6 can or will or should make an impact on a place that is so deeply, so wholly, so reverentially male.

Queried about how four additional female members might affect this men's club, one senior Senate staffer burst out laughing.

"Oh you'd need at least 20 new members in skirts to make a difference around here," she says. "There'd have to be a big, colorful brigade of women members, all with degrees from Harvard, carrying bloodied mallets from countless political battles."

Extreme as she may sound, she reflects a cynicism among some women in Washington. They've attended too many meetings that have a patina of a high-minded Supreme Court debate but the undercurrent of a stag party to make them believe the Senate will ever change.

It is only recently that senators have become accustomed to interacting with women as equals. Fourteen years ago Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) became the first woman elected to the Senate without "connections." Although a dozen women had preceded her, all of them were either appointed for a limited term by a friendly governor or had been preceded in Congress by their husbands.

None of the 14 women senators has ever been in a leadership position, nor has a woman Senator ever held a full-committee chairmanship. In general, the women lacked seniority, but experts agree that the pervasively male culture held them back.

So as Braun (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) join incumbents Kassebaum and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), there is hope and expectation that the new women can't help but have an effect, albeit a subtle one, on the climate and concerns of the Senate.

Ann Lewis, a Democratic consultant from Boston, is typical of the optimists:

"Listen, the minute they sit in that chamber, they'll change the whole culture of the place. You won't hear the stupid jokes. You won't see so-called women's legislation shunted aside. For the first time you'll hear speeches about abortion and child care and family leave made by people, women, with a degree of authority."

Ruth Mandel, a Rutgers University professor who heads its Center for the American Woman and Politics in New Brunswick, N.J., says she already can detect an effect.

"They're not simply appearing in Washington unnoticed," she says. "They are being watched and written about. And when the cameras pan the room when President Clinton gives his State of the Union address, it won't be a solid sea of suits. There will be 54 women from the House and Senate there, and that sends a message to our children and grandchildren about who's suitable for leadership and to young women thinking about their futures."

Mandel also believes that if the Senate 6 follow the example of the 1,000 women who have served in state legislatures, they could make a significant difference over time.

"We've found in our research that women have different perspectives and if you get enough of them in a legislative chamber, they'll be more likely to give priority to women's issues," says Mandel.

But is six enough?

"Well, not really," she says, admitting, "I wouldn't even do a research project on 6%. But it's a start."

Anita Dunne, a veteran congressional aide, couches her answer about the women's impact with a lot of \o7 ifs.

If the new women are able to unite around an issue, and if they are perceived as team players most times by the senior male members, and if they use their public relations advantage deftly, then maybe they'll be effective senators and the "agents of change" voters hoped for.

"Can you imagine what would happen if the five Democratic women all marched into a caucus meeting or just into (Sen. Majority Leader) George Mitchell's office united behind a cause or bill?" asks Dunne, a top aide to Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.). "He'd be hard pressed to ignore them."

Legislation is driven by all sorts of Senate subgroups--the Southern Conservatives, the Prairie Populists, the Western Democrats, to name a few. Dunne and others expect that the women, working with male senators who have long lobbied for women's issues, could form a powerful bloc.

Says Dunne: "They're powerful symbols, and how they're (received) will be closely watched."

They've already been closely criticized.

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