Women in the Senate

While 1993 was considered “the year of the woman”, with six female senators elected to office, 2013 represents a new victory for women, as 20 female senators were sworn in office this term, on Jan. 3 in Washington, D.C. This is the largest number of females to serve in the Senate at one time.

However, Nelson Bass, political science professor in the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences’ Division of Humnaities, said, “We still have significant problems that affect women, like equal pay for equal work.”

Bass believes that with more female representation, the Supreme Court case WalMart v. Dukes, could have turned out differently. The case began in 2001 as a class-action lawsuit, representing the 1.6 million women who work and had previously worked for Wal-mart since 1998.  The plaintiffs wanted the same pay and same promotional opportunities as men. In June 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the group of women filing against Walmart was too large and diverse to be constituted as a class.

Bass said that the Senate can eliminate court cases like these by passing legislation.

“There are things that the Senate can do to try to rectify that and maybe with more female representation, it would be considered more important,” Bass said.

Florida State Senator Anitere Flores said, “Men and women usually approach situations from different vantage points and I have often found myself offering a different perspective that had not previously been looked at.”

Bass has also recognized the advantages of having diversity in the Senate.

“You can’t always have the same voices saying the same thing over and over again.”

This year, the first openly gay senator was elected in U.S. history: Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin — a state that is traditionally against gay marriage.  Additionally, Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii will be the first Asian-American female senator.

Sophomore political science major Kelsey Obringer believes that Baldwin’s win is a result of citizens beginning to develop a more liberal mindset.

“People aren’t just picking people because they look good to them or they identify with what party they affiliate with,” Obringer said. “They are doing their homework and making educated choices on who to vote for, despite race, gender or sexuality.”

Linea Cutter, sophomore political science major, said that the recent senate race victories give her confidence that she can run for a member of political office in the feature.

“It gives me hope that I will not be discriminated against politically for being a woman and that I will be judged more upon what I stand for, than on what race or sex I am,” Cutter said.

Bass said that women initially did not start rising to power in America due to the structure of the government.  He explained that there is a large incumbency advantage, meaning that it’s difficult for officials to be voted out of office once they have a seat. This partially explains why many men have held their positions for so long.

“Now as that generation starts to get older and our population begins to reflect this diversity, you’re going to see a change there,” Bass said.  “It’d be nice if we could see more than just 20 female senators, but I guess it’s a good start.”

While the Senate has made strides in having more female representation, there has yet to be a female president.  Over fifteen countries have elected female leaders, including Germany, India, Australia, Argentina and Bangladesh.

“Our representation compared to the rest of the world — especially the industrialized, developed world — is very off,” Bass said.  “Anyone other than white males is tremendously underrepresented.  You don’t want to see these big discrepancies. If you want to talk about a democracy or a republic, it’s nice to have the diversity that reflects what the society actually looks like.”

Despite many challenge, Gary Gershman, associate professor in the Division of Humanities at the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, maintains hope for a female president.

“I think that Barack Obama broke a lot of barriers, and not just racial barriers,” he said.

Whether a president, a senator, or a member of the House, Flores believes that women can rise to any level in office.

“I think it is possible for women to achieve any and all rankings in government,” she said. “Regardless of gender, I believe that the possibilities are endless for those who work their hardest and are most committed.”

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