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: