WASHINGTON -- While a majority of people who live in the United States are women, there are only 17 of them in the U.S. Senate. And if Americans turn against Democrats in the 2012 elections, that number could fall even further.
It's happened before. Once all the votes were tallied in the 2010 midterm elections, the number of women in Congress had decreased by one -- the first such drop in 30 years.
Republicans lag significantly behind Democrats when it comes to female representation among lawmakers. So when Democrats were wiped out in 2010, potential gains by women went with them. There are now just 64 Democratic women in both houses of Congress, including Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.), who won a special election in May. Meanwhile, of the 289 Republicans in Congress, only 29 are women.
"When the Democrats have a bad year, that's particularly bad for women, because the overwhelming majority of female elected officials are still Democrats. So as long as women are not equally likely to run in both parties, that means that women's electoral fate is tied to trends that either support or work against the Democrats," said Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University and a 2006 candidate for the House of Representatives.
Seven female senators are up for reelection in 2012, and only one of them is a Republican. (Another Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, is retiring this year.) Five more women running for Senate are expected to be their party's nominees, and again, just one is a Republican. (All of the women are pro-choice.)
There could be a few more Senate female nominees -- such as former Missouri treasurer Sarah Steelman (R), wrestling executive and former Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon (R), Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) and former North Dakota attorney general Heidi Heitkamp (D) -- but they are still locked in tough primary battles.
In short, the stakes are high for women's representation in the 2012 elections. With the economy taking an especially hard toll on women and House Republicans intent on rolling back access to reproductive rights, the country could lose some of its most prominent advocates for women in Congress if large numbers of female incumbents are defeated.
'Having More Women Involved Will Help'
Senators and candidates interviewed by The Huffington Post pointed to both symbolic and substantive reasons it's important to have high numbers of women in elected office.
"We want our young girls and women to have no glass ceilings in their lives and in their futures. The symbolic impact of being able to look at a woman senator, a woman secretary of state, a woman as a CEO of a company -- as well as seeing women in all parts of society -- sends the message that you can be anything you want to be, and there's nothing holding you back," said Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who is running for the open Senate seat in her state and would become the first openly gay woman in the upper chamber if she wins.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is one of two female members of the Senate Democratic leadership. She was elected in 2000, the year that she and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) became the first two women in history to unseat incumbent senators.
Stabenow's first year in office marked another milestone for women -- it was the first time they were finally able to have representation on every Senate committee.
"It was the first year after that election, with 13 women in the Senate, where we had enough women to have a woman on every committee in the U.S. Senate. Isn't that amazing?" said Stabenow. "It was the first time we had a woman's experience, a woman's voice and perspective on every committee."
As part of her reelection campaign, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has launched Off the Sidelines, a project aimed at getting women more involved in their communities. She told The Huffington Post that in her experience, female senators legislate and negotiate differently than their male colleagues.
"When women are part of the negotiation and are part of decision-making, the outcomes are just better," said Gillibrand. "When we have our dinners with the women in the Senate -- the Democrats and Republicans -- we have so much common ground. We agree on so many basic principles and values. I think if there were more women at the decision-making table, we would get more things done."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) echoed that sentiment at Fortune magazine's "Most Powerful Women" dinner in April 2010.
When asked about progress on regulatory reform legislation, Feinstein replied, "Well, I actually think that if we had all women [in the Senate], we would solve the problem."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who was sitting in the front row at the event, enthusiastically clapped in response.
"There was a moment there at the end of the debt ceiling [debate] that some of the women, on a bipartisan basis, were talking about, 'We need to take this over and get this done,'" said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is running for her second term in 2012. "I think we are, by our nature, nurturers and negotiators. We want people to get along, we want to find a solution, we want to move forward. I think sometimes there is a tendency to like the fight for the fight's sake every once in awhile with some of the guys. So I think having more women involved will help."
'This Is A Women's Battle, This Election'
By some measures, women have had a tougher time climbing out of the recession than men have. According to a report by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, men have lost 6.2 million jobs since 2007 and women have lost 2.6 million. But men have regained 27 percent of jobs lost, while women have regained only 9 percent, meaning that men are recovering nearly three times faster.
Now women are at risk of losing some of the few lawmakers who personally know what it's like to be a woman in the modern economy, juggling a job, family life and other obligations. It's a point that the Democrats will emphasize during the 2012 campaign season, as Republicans argue that times wouldn't be so tough if GOP proposals for recovery were adopted.
Democratic recruitment efforts for the Senate are being led by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who is also the sole woman on the super committee charged with deficit reduction. In May, she and other Democratic senators -- both male and female -- held a press conference to try to ensure that the needs of women and families were considered during budget negotiations.
"I don't just want to keep our majority, I want to build on our majority with more women voices that represent this country and are able to forge solutions to the problems we face," said Murray. "Recruiting and electing more women to the Senate is not only the right thing for our party, but more importantly I think it is critical for the direction of our country."
"In their roles as professionals in the workforce, [women are] still fighting for equal pay for equal work. Women in families oftentimes are making the family budgetary decisions, health care decisions. Women are at the forefront, and certainly, in this election, during this economic downturn, women are disproportionately impacted. This is a women's battle, this election," said Baldwin.
In Hawaii, Rep. Mazie Hirono (D) is expected to face off against former Gov. Linda Lingle (R), meaning Hawaii will likely have a female senator for the first time since gaining statehood in 1959.
Hirono said her upbringing demonstrates the important role that women play in the economy.
"My mother brought me to this country, literally to create a better life for us," she said. "She had three children that she brought to this country, raised us all by herself, leaving an abusive marriage in Japan. So I've watched my mother work very hard with no health insurance, no job security. I know what it's like for a woman head-of-household. The economic issues that face women and our families are extremely important, and I intend to continue to raise my voice in support of families, many of whom are led by women these days."
Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that Republicans will focus on the economy in the 2012 election, as they did in 2010 when they swept congressional races. That focus, he said, will attract women to vote for Republican candidates.
"If you're looking ahead at your children's future and the type of country they are going to inherit when we're approaching a $15 trillion debt, when families are working harder and saving less -- arguably the Democratic economic policies over the last several years haven't been working, and it's time for a change," said Walsh.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship and the only female Republican senator up for reelection in 2012. She also argued that Republicans can win over women voters by focusing on the economy.
"As one who's worked on issues that are important to women and working families over the years throughout the entirety of my service in the House and the Senate -- I co-chaired the Congresswomen's Caucus in the House -- it is absolutely imperative that we focus on building a strong economy, because a lot of women are heads of households and single parents, meeting all the demands of life and a strong economy right now," said Snowe.
Yet women are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. A 2008 analysis by the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics found that women were a "significant factor" in President Barack Obama's victory. He won 56 percent of women's votes. Men split their vote about evenly between the two candidates.
According to CAWP, the Democratic nominee for president has won a higher percentage of female votes than the Republican nominee since the 1992 election.
Since the 1980s, there has also been a significant gender gap in party identification, with higher percentages of women calling themselves Democrats.
Fighting The 'War On Women'
During the debate over health care reform in 2009, Stabenow had a brief -- but memorable -- exchange with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz). It was a moment that, for pro-choice Democratic women, encapsulated how misguided and ill-informed Republican men were in their attempts to make decisions about women's bodies.
"I don't need maternity care, and so requiring that to be in my insurance policy is something that I don't need and will make the policy more expensive," argued Kyl during a Senate Finance Committee in September 2009.
"I think your mom probably did," shot back Stabenow. Kyl's response was a joke about his old age.
Stabenow won that battle. When President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law, it did specify "maternity and newborn care" as essential health benefits that had to be included in new insurance plans sold to individuals and small businesses, or plans in the state health insurance exchanges.
"I don't know what it would have been like if I had not been in that meeting," she told The Huffington Post, adding, "This was just a snapshot of the differences in perspectives and the importance of having women at the table."
Despite the promise to focus on creating jobs, Republicans have taken a detour and gone after women's access to abortion services. They led a high-profile effort to defund Planned Parenthood, and in fact, the third piece of legislation the House introduced in the 112th Congress was a bill that targeted abortion coverage in private health insurance plans.
The "war on women" is something that Democratic leaders like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have been trying to highlight for the past year, and it will likely pop up in the 2012 elections.
"I'm hoping that through our advocacy, and through these great female Senate candidates, we will inform the American electorate that this has been a very anti-woman, anti-jobs agenda," said Gillibrand. "They missed the opportunity to focus on better opportunities for job creation. ... So I think it's going to have a very significant effect on the election."
Women will also be heavily affected by Republican-backed plans to make changes to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.
"If you want to be strictly pragmatic about what's going on -- if they can depress the women's votes, then it's highly likely if women stay home, it enhances the chances of Republicans getting elected to the Senate," Hirono said.
Snowe, who is pro-choice, told The Huffington Post she did not agree with the efforts of the House GOP, and would like to see a stronger focus on jobs and the economy, rather than abortion and family planning services, from both parties.
"It's not where I would be, obviously, in my own positions," she said of the efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. "I think that's unfortunate. What we ought to be focusing on is how we're going to build the economy. In my perspective as a ranking member of the Small Business Committee, women-owned business is the fastest-growing segment of the economy, and I see it everywhere, certainly in my state of Maine. That's what we ought to be focusing on is developing those skills."
Persuading Women To Run For Office
One reason few women are elected to higher office is that few of them run.
"It's very very difficult to make large gains if women are only competing in about a third of the races," said Lawless, of the Women and Politics Institute. "And so until we really see more women running for office, it's very, very difficult to see increases in the percentage of women holding office."
It's partly about ego. Lawless' research has found that 60 percent of men believe they're fit to run for public office, compared to fewer than 40 percent of women who have the same qualifications. Women are also significantly more likely to let these doubts prevent them from running.
Even today, women also have more family obligations to consider than men do.
"In families where both adults are working, generally in high-level careers, women are 12 times more likely than men to be responsible for the majority of household tasks, and more than 10 times more likely to be responsible for the majority of child care responsibilities," wrote Lawless in 2007.
"A lot of women are supporting their families," said Hirono. "They've got other things in their lives that make it that much harder for them to think about running for office."
"This is a brutal line of work in terms of your privacy and your personal life being criticized," said McCaskill. "Any mistake you make being blown out of proportion, being twisted or distorted. I think that there are many women who believe it doesn't jibe with a strong family life, and I'm the first to acknowledge there are challenges associated with that."
"I feel like, in my life, I've been everything as an elected official," McCaskill added. "I've been single, I've been divorced, I've been pregnant. I've had three small children as a single mom. I've been remarried with a blended family. I've gone through a lot of different steps in my personal life, all while holding elected office, and I think that I can say confidently that while there are challenges, there are also advantages, and a lot of women don't see any of the advantages."
So what's the solution?
A 2009 study by CAWP -- which also runs the nonpartisan 2012 Project designed to inspire women to run for office -- found that nearly twice as many women as men said they had decided to run for political office only after it was suggested to them, whereas men were more likely to come up with the idea on their own.
Lawless has also found that women are four times more likely to seriously consider running for office when the idea is suggested to them.
Sam Bennett ran for Congress in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2008. She is now president and CEO of the She Should Run Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on getting people to urge more women to run for office and then connecting them with organizations and infrastructure to help them do so.
"Men wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and have been culturally raised and trained to see themselves as political candidates. Women have been raised in a radically different way," said Bennett. "Our culture has trained them not only to not see themselves as political candidates, but to see themselves as uniquely unqualified to run. So that's where the challenge lies."
"This problem will not fix itself -- a banner year of outstanding senatorial candidates not withstanding," she added. "The only thing that's going to fix this is exponentially more women being asked to run for office."
A look at the women running for the U.S. Senate in 2012:
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) was elected to the Senate in 2001, and she serves as chair of both the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security, and the Senate Subcommittee on Energy. She is also a member of the Senate Committee on Finance, the Committee on Indian Affairs and the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Cantwell is a strong supporter of abortion rights, having voted against the 2003 Partial-Birth Abortion Act and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act in 2004. She is also an advocate for environmental protection and has voted against oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge several times. Cantwell is a strong advocate for civil liberties, and she was one of just 13 Democrats to vote against the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. Following her defeat by Republican Rick White in the 1994 House of Representatives election, Cantwell joined the private sector, becoming the senior vice president of RealNetworks. In 2000, Cantwell was elected to the Senate and became one of the first two women to defeat incumbent senators, alongside Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was elected to the Senate in 1992. Before that, she served as the 38th mayor of San Francisco from 1978 to 1988 and was elected the first female president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Feinstein chairs both the Senate Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water. She is also a member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and the Committee on Rules and Administration. She was the first woman to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Feinstein was the original Democratic co-sponsor of the bill that extended the Patriot Act, saying in 2005, "I believe the Patriot Act is vital to the protection of the American people and I question why the President is opposing a three-month extension while efforts are underway to reach a consensus on two problematic provisions." Feinstein is currently the lead sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as being between one man and one woman. "My own belief is that when two people love each other and enter the contract of marriage, the federal government should honor that," she said in a statement. "I opposed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. It was the wrong law then; it is the wrong law now; and it should be repealed."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) assumed office in 2009, appointed by then-Gov. David Paterson (D) to replace Hillary Clinton, who joined the Obama administration as Secretary of State. Before that, Gillibrand was twice elected to the House in a district in upstate New York. She has since served on the Senate Committees on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Armed Services; Environment and Public Works and Foreign Relations. The pro-choice senator is a strong advocate for government transparency and well-known for championing the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. In late October, she announced that she would be introducing the Every Child Deserves a Family Act in the Senate, a measure that would allow same-sex couples to become foster or adoptive parents. As part of her reelection campaign, Gilliband has launched Off the Sidelines, a project aimed at getting women more involved in their communities. "When women are part of the negotiation and are part of decision-making, the outcomes are just better," Gillibrand told The Huffington Post.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) became the first woman elected to the Senate from Minnesota when she won her campaign in 2006. She serves as chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation and Export Promotion and is a member of the Committees on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Commerce, Science and Transportation, as well as the Judiciary Committee. Prior to being elected to the Senate, Klobuchar was a partner at two law firms until 1998, when she was elected as the chief prosecutor in Hennepin County, Minnesota's largest. She served in that role from 1999-2007, during which she was named Attorney of the Year by the Minnesota Lawyer. In the Senate, Klobuchar is a strong supporter of Planned Parenthood and has opposed measures that would cut federal funding for the family planning organization. In 2007, The Washington Post called her "a leading proponent of efforts to combat climate change."
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) was the first woman elected to the Senate from Missouri in 2006. From 1983-1988, she was a member of the Missouri House of Representatives. She is the chair of the Senate Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight as well as a member of the Senate Committees on Armed Services; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Special Committee on Aging. McCaskill is an avid user of social media and is currently the second-most followed member of Congress on Twitter. McCaskill has been one of Congress' top watchdogs on wartime contracts, calling for greater administration scrutiny of taxpayer dollars being spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is currently crafting legislation that would reform wartime contracting, after a report came out showing that $60 billion in taxpayer dollars had been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan on private contractors. The senator is a strong supporter of women's rights to abortion access, and she criticized the GOP's attempts to defund Planned Parenthood in an interview with The Huffington Post. "One of the reasons I was proud to lock arms with the other women Democratic senators to stop what they were trying to do to Planned Parenthood is that it doesn't even make sense in terms of their agenda," she said. "If you want to prevent abortions, why in the world would you cut off giving birth control to young women? It's just nonsensical to think we're going to reduce abortions by making it so that young college women can't access Planned Parenthood services for gynecological exams and birth control services."
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) was elected to Senate in 2000. Previously, she represented Michigan as a member of the House of Representatives from 1997-2001. She was also the first woman to preside over the Michigan state House. She is now one of two women in the Senate Democratic leadership, serving as the vice chair of the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center. In 2000, she and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) were the first women in history to defeat sitting Senate incumbents. She chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. She is also a member of the Senate Committees on Budget; Energy and National Resources; and Finance. Stabenow was a strong supporter of health care reform. During the debate in 2009, she had a brief -- but memorable -- exchange with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz) about the need for maternity care coverage in health insurance plans. "I don't need maternity care, and so requiring that to be in my insurance policy is something that I don't need and will make the policy more expensive," argued Kyl during a Senate Finance Committee in September 2009. "I think your mom probably did," shot back Stabenow. "This was just a snapshot of the differences in perspectives and the importance of having women at the table," Stabenow told The Huffington Post.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) was elected to Congress in 1998, making her the first woman in the Wisconsin delegation. If elected to the Senate in the open seat being vacated by Sen. Herb Kohl (D), she would be the first woman in the state to serve in the upper chamber. Baldwin is a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and a strong supporter of the Violence Against Women Act. In a 2011 National Journal survey, she tied for first place in a ranking of most liberal members of the House. In her Senate campaign announcement, she promised to focus on the "fight to grow our economy, protect seniors, force Wall Street to clean up its act, and bring our troops home from Afghanistan." She told The Huffington Post that the 2012 elections will be a "women's battle." "Women in families oftentimes are making the family budgetary decisions, health care decisions. Women are at the forefront, and certainly, in this election, during this economic downturn, women are disproportionately impacted," she said. Baldwin is also the only openly gay woman in Congress and if elected, she would be the first openly gay woman in the Senate. The Human Rights Campaign has called her candidacy "monumental for both the state of Wisconsin and the country's LGBT community."
Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), currently in her seventh term in Congress, could be the first female U.S. senator from Nevada. In the first six months of 2011, she raised more money for her campaign than her opponent, incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.). An October 2011 poll showed the two dead even in the general election, both receiving 45 percent of support. She serves on the House Committee on Ways and Means and has been a strong supporter of women's access to abortion. She has earned a perfect rating with pro-choice groups for her entire congressional tenure. She has also cosponsored legislation promoting equal pay and a higher minimum wage. Berkley is a strong opponent of the construction of a nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) could be both the first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate and the first female Hawaiian senator. She serves on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the Committee on Ethics, and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Raised in Japan until age eight, Hirono would also be the first immigrant elected to the Senate. In an interview with The Huffington Post, she described her upbringing: "My mother brought me to this country, literally to create a better life for us. She had three children that she brought to this country, raised us all by herself, leaving an abusive marriage in Japan. So I've watched my mother work very hard with no health insurance, no job security. I know what it's like for a woman head-of-household. The economic issues that face women and our families are extremely important, and I intend to continue to raise my voice in support of families, many of whom are led by women these days." Hirono is expected to face former Republican governor Linda Lingle in the Senate race.
Former Republican Hawaii governor Linda Lingle was the first woman and the first Jewish governor of Hawaii, serving from 2002-2010. From 1999-2002, she served as the elected chair of the Hawaii Republican Party. In October 2011, she announced she would be running to succeed retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), competing against Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). At the 2008 Republican National Convention, Lingle gained national prominence when she gave a strong endorsement of fellow female governor Sarah Palin, as Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) running mate in the presidential election. Lingle has taken more moderate positions than many members of her party on certain issues. "Although favoring parental consent for abortions, she did not oppose all abortion rights. She also allowed tax increases for mass transit projects and cigarettes, and spoke out for expanding renewable energy," wrote The Hill in October. In 2006, she signed a pro-choice bill removing a "90-day residential requirement for women seeking an abortion in Hawaii and a requirement that all abortions be performed only in a hospital."
Longtime consumer advocate and Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren would become the first woman elected to the Senate from Massachusetts if she defeats Republican incumbent Sen. Scott Brown in the 2012 Senate election. Warren, who has been called "Wall Street's Worst Nightmare," conceived of and built the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). President Obama appointed her as its acting head, but Republicans aggressively opposed the idea of her getting the permanent position and threatened to wage a drawn-out confirmation battle. Progressives urged Obama to give her a recess appointment, but Warren announced her resignation from the CFPB in July. "The pressures on middle class families are worse than ever, but it is the big corporations that get their way in Washington," said Warren in a statement announcing her candidacy for the Senate. "I want to change that. I will work my heart out to earn the trust of the people of Massachusetts." A September 2011 poll showed Warren as the only candidate with a lead against incumbent Brown. She has essentially cleared the field of major primary contenders and is the presumptive nominee.
Heitkamp, a former North Dakota attorney general and gubernatorial candidate, now running to represent the state in the U.S. Senate. She's seeking to replace fellow Democrat Kent Conrad, who announced last year that he wouldn't run for reelection. She'll face Republican Rick Berg, a freshman congressman. At her first town hall in April, she outlined a few of her positions: In her first leap into the public eye this campaign season, she is targeting the Ryan Budget. A plan that Representative Berg supported. Heitkamp is critical of the cuts to farm programs, student aid and medicare. Meanwhile, since Heitkamp entered the race -- Republicans have attacked her for backing President Obama's Healthcare plan. "My challenge is lets have a discussion what works to solve the problem with healthcare delivery in our state. I don't think repealing a bill that prohibits the use of preexisting conditions to deny people insurance or kick people off insurance is the right public policy," says Heitkamp.
Former World Wresting Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon is making her second go around as a Republican candidate for Connecticut Senate in 2012. She's in the midst of a bruising GOP primary against former Congressman Christopher Shays. The winner will face one of four Democratic candidates. In the 2010 Senate race, McMahon suffered a handy defeat to Democrat Richard Blumenthal after spending more than $50 million of her own money.