At 23 women senators, we’ve made a lot of progress; 11 will face voters this fall

REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Women senators testify during a Senate Foreign Relations sub-committee hearing on "Combating Violence and Discrimination Against Women: A Global Call to Action" in 2014. From left are Sens. Mazie K. Hirono, Heidi Heitkamp, Patty Murray, Elizabeth Warren, Debbie Stabenow, Tammy Baldwin and Amy Klobuchar.

For lefties like me, especially those of us who have to pay a lot of attention to the goings on in Washington, these are trying times.

I don’t mind confessing that, for me, many of the policies that our current president and the party that currently controls both houses of Congress (and perhaps, one might say, the Supreme Court as well) agree on represent regress, not progress. Even the ludicrous slogan “Make America Great Again” is an invitation to look backward.

But really looking back can help us see what we’ve left behind, including many things (oh, I don’t know, the near-genocide of the native population, slavery, de jure segregation, voting for males only, things like that) that we now recognize were shameful, but on which we have made great progress.

When I can, I summon a longer view and, while acknowledging the shameful parts, try to remember and celebrate the progress.

A great deal of what offends us day to day about President Trump is style and personality, not substance. The number of important bills passed is surprisingly low. Nothing that has been done cannot be undone as part of the ongoing story of America. Sometimes, it seems, you have to take a step backward before you can summon the momentum to move two steps forward. At least these are things I tell myself, to feel better, and it halfway works.

It helps that I’m pretty old (66, if you must know) and can look at the changes in American society I’ve lived through and can convince myself that, on balance, they have represented progress. Maybe not in every category, but in a lot of important ones. I bore my kids with this stuff, I don’t think they can quite believe that when I was growing up there were no gay rights at all, and no such thing, in most of society, as openly gay. Homosexuality was in fact criminalized.

My kids are tired of me telling them this, but I do it so we (or at least I) bear in mind the progress that’s occurred. I hope we can keep building on progress that’s been made in many areas, but it doesn’t hurt to occasionally make note of the progress that’s been made to date.

What set me off on this particular theme was this story from “Inside Elections” (subscription required) headlined “How Women Could Lose Senate Seats in the Latest Year of the Woman.”

Yes, depending on how things go, given which seats are on the ballot and which have serious women candidates, IE notes that the number of women senators, currently 23, could go up by three or down by five.

But the current count, 23 women senators, is the highest it’s ever been. The appointment in January of Minnesota’s Tina Smith (a Democrat) bumped it up to a record 22. Then the more recent appointment of Cyndy Hyde-Smith (a Republican) to serve out the remainder of the term of Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, (who retired early for health reasons) bumped it up one more. Neither Hyde-Smith nor (just plain) Smith is guaranteed to win in November.

Of course, we won’t have gender equity until that number hits 50. But 23 is the new record high. There’s room for that number to grow in the November midterm elections, with a handful of women in both parties running in competitive seats. It’s also possible for the number of women in the Senate to drop. More than half of the women in the Senate are up for re-election this year — 11 Democrats and two Republicans.

But when I go into my annoying history lectures to my kids, I tell them that when I was boy there was only one woman in the Senate. That was Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who was a serious force, and was the first woman ever to have her name placed be nominated for president at a major party convention (it was at the 1964 Republican Convention), although she was eliminated on the first ballot. And even Smith’s political career came about by taking over her husband’s seat in Congress.

Several women had served in the Senate before her, but almost all of them were the wives of male senators who died in the middle of term and their widows served until the next election. (Minnesota’s first woman senator, Muriel Humphrey, got the job that way.) In general, the women who were appointed to serve out their husbands’ unexpired terms didn’t seek a term in their own name.  

Here’s a (very hard) trivia question for you (answer at the bottom): Who was the first woman ever to actually win an election in her own right as a U.S. senator? Hint, she ran and won after serving out the unexpired of her dead husband’s term. But it’s a really hard question because she’s not nearly as famous as she should be).

Anyway, we’re past the point where women get into the Senate only by succeeding their late husbands. Of current record 23 women in the Senate, none entered as the appointed widow of their predecessor. The closest to that would be Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who was appointed by her father, the former senator, who left in the middle of his term to become governor. Lisa Murkowski has since been re-elected three times.

In my humble opinion, the new record of 23 women in the Senate is one of those signs of  progress toward equity that should be celebrated.

Answer to the trivia question above: Hattie Caraway of Arkansas was the first women ever to win a Senate election. When her husband, Sen. Thaddeus Caraway, died in 1931, his widow (as was common practice) was appointed to serve until a special election. But then she ran in, and won, the special election to serve out the remainder of Thaddeus’ term and then, even more surprisingly for those days, sought and won a full term in 1932 and another one in 1938. I think she should be more famous. 

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/09/2018 - 10:44 am.

    Times have changed

    Indeed, it’s backwards then forward, or forward, then back, but incrementally, the jagged line seems to be headed in what I regard as the proper direction, which would be more toward actually living up to the ideals in our founding documents.

    Not only no gay rights when I was a lad (I’m older than Eric), but for a lot of citizens of color, no voting rights in some parts of the country, and in other parts, those rights were on paper, but not in practice. Housing segregation was the norm, which does a lot to explain residential patterns here, in St. Louis, and in Denver – all the metro areas where I’ve lived – and in, I’d guess, every other major metro area in the country. I couldn’t vote until I was 21, which means I missed my chance to vote for Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society in 1964 – or against Barry Goldwater and that infamous mushroom cloud – something about which I’m still ambivalent, since Johnson then plunged us into Vietnam, starving many of the programs he established, and I’m not at all sure that Goldwater would have invented the circumstances to justify our involvement there.

    And, of course, there were far fewer women in elective office – at **any** level, in **any** office. Having grown up in a household filled with smart and competent women – a writer, a poet, two artists, a physician, a lawyer and a teacher – I’m happy to see us move closer to a 50/50 balance on that electoral scale.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/09/2018 - 03:48 pm.

      Very Big Changes, Indeed

      Back in the day, who would have imagined a US Senator asking that the rules be changed to allow her to bring her newborn daughter onto the floor of the Senate with her? Who would have thought that wold even b an issue?

  2. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/09/2018 - 07:34 pm.

    Some of those women will no doubt leave the Senate this year, but their departure will have nothing to do with their sex.

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 04/09/2018 - 08:12 pm.

    An alternate view

    If we look at the senate generationally, the picture is much more balanced. The oldest senators are from the silent generation, pre-boomers. They are mostly men, and many have served a very long time, like Hatch & McCain. Among that generation, it was unusual for women to reach the highest levels of leadership in business or politics; Sen Feinstein is one of the rare exceptions. Among the boomers, more women entered politics and the corporate workforce and, indeed, we see more women from that generation in the senate. But its among the Gen X cohort where women have perhaps reached parity with men. I believe Schatz, a man, may be the youngest; but other youngsters are Klobuchar, Gillibrand, Duckworth, Harris, Heitkamp. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see women outnumber men in the senate as the boomers eventually leave.

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 04/09/2018 - 09:40 pm.


    With a population difference of about 2% more women than men, the U.S. Senate is still less than 25% female and no female President yet. Fortunately it is rare for sitting Senators to lose so the percentages should continue to go up, especially given all that the present Senators have done for women in the last few years.

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