The Women of the 118th Congress are being recognized as a group as part of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year program, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
It hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t been fast, but the rising tide of women in Congress is changing Capitol Hill and the country.
Three decades ago, when Patty Murray announced her Senate campaign in Washington state in 1992, she was dismissed as “a mom in tennis shoes.” After she won, she joined just five other women in the Senate and male colleagues who eyed them skeptically. “They were like, ‘Are these guys going to be radicals?'” she recalled.
Now, in January, Murray became the first woman to be elected president pro tempore of the Senate, third in line for the presidency. In an occasion she called “historic and exciting,” she was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman elected to that office.
Women make up more than a quarter of the voting members of the 118th Congress, the highest percentage in U.S. history and a 50% jump in the past decade. There are 25 women in the Senate, matching the record, and a groundbreaking 125 women in the House.
The presence of more and groundbreaking women on Capitol Hill has changed not only the face of Congress but also its agenda. The lawmakers – honored as a group by USA TODAY among the nation’s Women of the Year – have elevated research into women’s health, reformed the way sexual assault allegations are handled in the military, and pursued issues that affect the daily lives of children.
Women of the 118th Congress chosen as Women of the Year honorees
They include Rep. Jennifer McClellan, who won a special election in Virginia last month. The Democrat was the first Black woman elected to Congress from the commonwealth.
Last November, Vermont became the 50th and final state to send a woman to Congress. Rep. Becca Balint, a Democrat, is also the first openly gay member of Congress from the state.
“Women are not represented to the extent they exist in the population and to the extent they have entered professions that make up the pipeline” often used for aspiring candidates, said Michele L. Swers, a Georgetown University government professor who has studied the policy impact of women in Congress. She called that the “glass-half-empty side” of the issue.
The United States still lags most mature democracies in Europe and around the world in the percentage of women in national legislatures, tied for 72nd in statistics maintained by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
“On the glass-half-full side,” Swers said, “since we’ve had these influxes of women and since Congress operates on seniority, women now have levels of seniority to wield power.”
In the Republican-controlled House, women now chair the Appropriations Committee (Kay Granger of Texas), the Committee on Education and the Workforce (Virginia Foxx of North Carolina) and the Energy and Commerce Committee (Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state).
In the Democratic-controlled Senate, women lead the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee (Debbie Stabenow of Michigan), the Appropriations Committee (Murray), the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee (Maria Cantwell of Washington) and the Rules and Administration Committee (Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota).
Democrats Nikki Budzinski, Ill., and from left, Becca Balint, Vt., Summer Lee, Pa., Delia Ramirez, Ill., Hillary Scholten, Mich., and Yadira Caraveo, Democratic candidate in Colorado’s 8th Congressional District, stand for a class photo of newly-elected members of Congress on the East Front of the Capitol in Washington.
Patrick Semansky, AP
Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark ranks No. 2 in the House Democratic leadership, and New York Rep. Elise Stefanik is No. 4 in the Republican leadership. Stabenow is No. 3 in the Senate Democratic leadership, and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst is No. 4 in the Republican leadership.
Clark, now the Democratic whip, has seen changes in the 10 years she was been in Congress. “When I was first elected, I was mistaken for a spouse on multiple times and told I couldn’t enter the floor,” she told USA TODAY. That rarely happens today. “When I ran in 2013, I was one of the first campaigns to have majority female donors, and now we see that more routinely.”
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the first female speaker of the House, stepped down as the House Democratic leader this year after two decades in power.
The presence of more women on Capitol Hill has affected more than the head count.
Academic research by Swers and others have found that female members of Congress make a priority of issues that resonate in the lives of many women. They are more likely than men to sponsor and co-sponsor bills promoting equal pay, family leave, reproductive rights, education and health care.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.
Alex Brandon, AP
“I think all issues are women’s issues,” Stefanik, chair of the House Republican Conference, told USA TODAY, but women offer a “unique perspective that helps educate us as policy makers.”
As the mother of a toddler, Stefanik said she saw early signs of a shortage of baby formula last year before many of her colleagues. “I literally was going to the grocery store and saw the shelves becoming more and more empty,” she said, prompting her to raise and pursue the issue.
After the number of Republican women in the House dropped to 13 in the 2018 midterm elections, the lowest GOP level in a quarter-century, Stefanik created a political action group called Elevate-PAC to recruit and support GOP female candidates. In the 2022 elections, their ranks grew to 33 – a significant increase, albeit still far below the 92 Democratic women now serving in the House.
President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington.
Susan Walsh, AP
The campaign has roots in her upstate New York district, she noted, where suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born and Susan B. Anthony got her first paid position as a teacher.
Women in Congress have formed bipartisan coalitions to pass legislation of particular importance to women, including creating the Office of Women’s Health and requiring the National Institutes of Health to include more women in clinical trials. Female senators worked across party lines to change the way the armed forces address sexual assault allegations in the military.
In January, Republican Rep. Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma and Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania launched a bipartisan task force pushing for paid family and medical leave.
While there are cases of collaboration, the growing polarization in Washington is reflected among female members as well as male members. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has become the face of the most progressive forces in American politics. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., is among the nation’s most outspoken populists and Donald Trump supporters.
Women are driving the increasing racial and ethnic diversity on Capitol Hill.
The current Congress includes 29 Black women, 20 Latinas, 11 Asian American/Pacific Islander women and one who identifies as Middle Eastern/North African, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In 2018, Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas became one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress. Last year, Mary Peltola became the first Alaska Native elected to Congress and the first woman the state had elected to the House.
This year, the clout of congressional women will be in the spotlight in key debates.
For the first time, women are now the chairs and the ranking members of both the House and Senate Appropriations committees, a powerful quartet shorthanded in Capitol-speak as the “Four Corners.” They are leading the panels that will play a central role on such looming battles as raising the debt ceiling and dealing with the deficit.
From left, Shalanda Young, the first Black woman to lead the Office of Management and Budget; Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Senate Appropriations Committee chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.; House Appropriations Committee ranking member Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn.; and House Appropriations chair Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas. It’s the first time in history that the four leaders of the two congressional spending committees are women.
Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP
Patty Murray, D-Wash.
We need to have these bills done; the country is tired of chaos. But I think also in the back of all of our minds is, we have to show young girls and women in this country that we can do this job.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut is the top Democrat on the House committee, chaired by Granger. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is the top Republican on the Senate committee, chaired by Murray.
Granger cites her experience as a former high school teacher who reared three children as valuable experience for the task ahead. The four congresswomen already have begun to meet.
“We need to have these bills done; the country is tired of chaos,” Murray told USA TODAY. “But I think also in the back of all of our minds is, we have to show young girls and women in this country that we can do this job.”
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12:02 pm UTC Mar. 17, 2023
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