Women make historic gains in the U.S. Senate

November 7, 2012

Women ruled the ballot boxes on Tuesday night.

For the first time in history, women will hold 20 seats, a record number from the current 17, in the U.S. Senate. From Massachusetts to Hawaii, women made significant gains on a night when the war on women became a referendum.

In Massachusetts, Democrat Elizabeth Warren defeated incumbent Republican Scott Brown to become the first female senator in that state’s history. In Nebraska, Republican Deb Fischer beat Democratic native son, Bob Kerrey, and became the first full-term female senator in that state.

A tough race faced incumbent Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, in Missouri against Rep. Todd Akin. His words in August about a woman’s body shutting down against pregnancy during a legitimate rape came back to haunt him on Election Day.

But women made history on other fronts, too.

Democrat Mazie Hirono in Hawaii beat Linda Lingle to become the first Asian-American woman in the Senate. In Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay U.S. senator when she beat former governor Tommy Thompson in an open seat.

Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, in North Dakota won against one-term U.S. Rep. Rick Berg. Berg conceded Wednesday afternoon. 

And what can be said about New Hampshire? Except wow.

The Granite State elected an all-woman delegation on Tuesday night. The state already had two female senators – Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Kelly Ayotte – but now two Democratic women – Carol Shea-Porter and Ann McLane Kuster – will represent New Hampshire in the House of Representatives. The state also elected Maggie Hassan, who will be the country’s only female Democratic governor.

That’s girl power to the nth degree.

In 2012, roughly half the 33 Senate races had a viable female candidate – another record number. In two of the races, women faced off against each other (Hirono and Lingle in Hawaii; and Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who won reelection, against Republican Wendy Long in New York.)

Twenty years ago, 1992 was declared the year of the woman. That’s when women won a record six Senate seats. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the number of women running for Congress beat previous records in this election.

“Not since the so-called ‘Year of the Woman’ in 1992 have we seen such a leap in the number of women stepping forward to contend for congressional seats,” CAWP director Debbie Walsh said earlier this fall. “Many of the same factors are in play – the crucial first election after reapportionment and redistricting, news events underscoring the need for women’s voices in policymaking, and a presidential election year generating political excitement.”

With more women in Congress, men may have greater difficulty passing anti-woman bills when they have to look their female colleagues in the eye and justify their reasoning. Female senators could – and likely will – introduce more legislation that benefits women’s rights and needs.

For all the gains on Tuesday night, women still want something else – a female president. Before the end of President Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, Hillary2016 was trending on Twitter. Many pundits have talked about Warren or Gillibrand possibly making a White House run.

With more women in leadership positions, the vision of a female president becomes easier to imagine. When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008, the idea of a female president seemed so novel. When Sen. John McCain picked then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate that same year, the choice seemed daring.

After last night, the Oval Office seems well within reach.

An earlier version of this story misstated the number of women who will be in the Senate. It has been corrected.

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker

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Annie Groer | November 7, 2012