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Wonder Women Busting Up Boys' Club in Congress

01-30-2015
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WASHINGTON -- More women now serve in Congress than ever before and while that's a milestone worth celebrating, there's still a lot of room for growth.

It wasn't too long ago that about the only way a woman could get into Congress was if her husband died in office and she was appointed to finish his term.

Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to Congress in 1917, three years before women won the right to vote. It would be another 15 years before voters put a woman in the U.S. Senate. Hattie Caraway from Arkansas won that distinction, becoming the first woman elected to a full term.

Fast forward to 2015, when a record 104 women will play a role on Capitol Hill, crafting the nation's laws. Among them is Elise Stefanik, from New York, the youngest woman ever elected to the House, and Utah's Mia Love, the first black Republican congresswoman.

A Unique Perspective

"I've never really ever looked at issues in Washington, D.C., as women's issues. I think women have a unique perspective on every issue," Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., told CBN News.
  
The South Dakota congresswoman co-chairs the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, alongside Democrat Rep. Doris Matsui of California.

The diverse group finds areas of agreement, such as ending human trafficking, and tackles them like moms checking off a to-do list.

"There's so many times I've been in on a discussion on a bill or policy where if the women weren't in the room, it wouldn't have been an adequate solution; it wouldn't have been something that worked for our country," Noem said.

"My experience is that women like to solve the problem and aren't as concerned necessarily about who gets the credit, and that's a different way to govern from our male counterparts," Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., said.

Congresswomen Hahn and Noem also belong to a women's-only Bible study where their Christian faith helps diffuse political differences.

"It's the one area we're able to share with each other some of our struggles that we probably would not share with a bigger group or with our male counterparts," Hahn said.

The women appreciate and need each other's support.

"The other women that are here are absolutely fantastic and they get it and we have great relationships and care about one another's families, ask about those families, keep up with one another even when we're not in D.C.," Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said.

Still a Boys' Club

Despite making up half the population, women are a clear minority on the Hill.

"It's really interesting being a conservative woman in Congress and many times you do feel like you're at the end of the list, if you will. And even when you're the next in line there's always a guy that's going to be pushed in front of you," Blackburn told CBN News.

Two years in a row, Republican women have responded to the president's State of the Union Address.

However, in the Republican-controlled House, men head up all the committees. And in the GOP-controlled Senate, just one woman - Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, holds the title of chairman.

It demonstrates that women still face challenges breaking into the men's club.

"For a lot of us women, the chance to build relationships with individuals gets a little hard on Capitol Hill," Noem said.

"You know, our chance to socialize with our colleagues, for me, certainly isn't going to happen in a bar at night," she continued. "I'm not going to do that so my chance to really build relationships with other colleagues is going to be in a Bible study or potentially in the gym."

"That can end up hurting your chance to become a chairman or rise to the top of some type of panel or task force," she added.

Why the Dearth of Women?

A recent Gallop poll shows 63 percent of Americans believe the country would be in better shape if more women were in positions of political leadership. It's an opinion shared by both women and men across every age group.

So why then do women only make up 20 percent of the House and Senate?

"I think a lot of women just don't feel like they want to put their family through the trials and tribulations of running for office," Hahn explained. "And the way politics has become so combative and so negative that I think a lot of women just think, 'Who needs that?'"

It can be a tremendous sacrifice, especially for moms who leave their families and sometimes travel across the country.

"I had to be asked to run for office or else I never would be here. I wanted to be a farmer the rest of my life," Noem shared.

"But people kept asking me for several years and finally I thought, 'Well, ya know, I can't just say I want this country to be different, maybe I have to contribute to that process," she said.

Democrats Rule

For now, Democrats corner the "women in Congress" market. Fourteen of the 20 female senators are Democrats, along with 62 of the 84 women in the House.

Tami Nantz, who writes for Smart Girl Politics, said liberal-minded women are more apt to run for office and the Democratic Party is better at recruiting and nurturing female candidates.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the way the media approaches a liberal candidate versus a conservative candidate. I think women that are on the left don't have the microscope on them that conservative women do," Nantz said.

Rep. Hahn said Democrats also have more role models. In the House, they're led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who also served as the first female speaker.

Women on both sides of the aisle hope Congress will someday more closely mirror the population. But for now, they're celebrating their record numbers and weighing in on the nation's laws in ways only women can.

"I think the role models that are in this Congress are important for young girls and women across this country to see that this really is something. It's a noble profession, and it's something worth striving for," Hahn said.

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