It has been 86 years since Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate, and women remain woefully underrepresented in the chamber. Women make up nearly 51 percent of the U.S. population but just 23 percent of the Senate, an all-time high, nonetheless, after Tina Smith was sworn in as the new senator from Minnesota in January.
They form something of a tight-knit club.
They have bipartisan dinners that make their male colleagues jealous. They have banded together to solve seemingly intractable problems; in 2013, when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, led a move to shut down the government, the women of the Senate cut a bipartisan deal to reopen it. And they have pushed their colleagues to tackle issues like sexual harassment, domestic violence and sexual assault in the military.
On Sunday, four female senators — Susan Collins, R-Maine, Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa — discussed women in politics, public policy and the special bond among women in the Senate at a TimesTalks forum in New York. (Ernst, waylaid by an Iowa snowstorm, arrived toward the end.)
Here are some of the session's lighter moments, offering a peek behind the scenes of life as a woman in the Senate:
Who me? Run for public office?
Collins says she is often called upon to recruit women (and men) who are thinking of running for office. Many women tell her that they do not feel quite ready. "I have never, ever had a man say that to me, that he wasn't quite ready," she said, adding, "I think there's a self-doubt and a hesitancy to take risks that we need to overcome."
Women have also historically had a tougher time raising money, said Klobuchar, who in 2006 became the first woman elected to the Senate from her state. On that score, she said she believes she set a record during her first run for Senate: "I raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends."
Welcome to the Senate
It is not uncommon for women in the Senate to suffer from a case of mistaken identity. When Klobuchar arrived, in 2007, she stepped onto the senators-only elevator, only to be confronted by a male colleague. "This is a senators-only elevator," she recalled him telling her. "I looked at him and I said, 'And who are you? I AM a senator.'"
Not much had improved by the time Heitkamp arrived in 2013. She recalled trying to step onto the subway that connects Senate office buildings to the Capitol. A guard asked for her identification, which she produced. "So you're a Senate spouse?" she said he asked. "I went, 'No. I am THE United States senator from my state.'"
Separate and unequal?
For a long time there was no women's bathroom on the second floor of the Capitol, off the Senate chamber. Klobuchar said that when she arrived, there was a small bathroom, not large enough to accommodate the Senate's growing female population. So she and then-Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who was regarded as the dean of female senators until her retirement last year, "self-appointed ourselves to the 'expand the woman's bathroom' committee." The architect of the Capitol presented them with a plan to add one stall. Mikulski, Klobuchar recalled, was not impressed. "She says, 'You know what this is? This is a glass-ceiling bathroom.'"
Proper Attire Required
The men also have a better gym than the women and the men's gym has a pool. When then-Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., arrived in the Senate in 2009, she wanted to swim there, only to be greeted with a sign on the door that said "men only." There was a reason for the sign, Collins said. There were at least two male senators — she would not name them — who enjoyed swimming in the nude. Today, women can use the pool, and the sign says "Proper Attire Required." When Hagan lost her race in 2014, the women of the Senate threw her a goodbye party — at the pool.
About those bipartisan dinners
Heitkamp boasted that she ran the "most fun" dinner; she took the women of the Senate bowling at the White House bowling alley, and bought her colleagues bowling shirts. "And we got in big trouble," she said, "because we stood on the lanes, and they had to resand the lanes afterward."
No children allowed?
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., recently became the first female senator to give birth while in office. She is now pushing to change the rule that bars senators from bringing children onto the Senate floor. Klobuchar, the senior Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee, is working with her. "Of course," the senator said wryly, "my husband does joke, 'Well what do you mean? There's a lot of babies on the floor already.'"