THE BLOG
12/03/2010 10:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Women in the State Senate

The hot political debate when I was in the Navy was whether or not women sailors should be allowed on combatant vessels.

I was stationed aboard the USS Hewitt (DD 966). A Spruance Class destroyer, our primary mission was anti-submarine warfare, but we also had a full complement of Tomahawk missiles and filled a wide variety of missions. Our home port was Yokosuka, Japan - the "tip of the spear" we liked to call it.

One afternoon I was in the sonar room when a Senior Chief Petty Officer stormed in, took off his hat and threw it against the bulkhead as hard as he could. He was spitting mad and the string of vulgarities spewing from his mouth was an impressive tribute to his 30+ years of service in the Navy. A message had just been received directing us back to Yokosuka where our sleeping quarters would be modified to accommodate female crew members.

The next several months were interesting as we prepared to embark our first female shipmates. We went through anti-sexual harassment training and male/female "sensitivity" training. We had the base chaplain come aboard and talk to us about civility and professionalism in the workplace. I remember inspecting the Chart Room and talking to one of my sailors who was "morally torn" about giving up his vast collection of pornography. On the one hand he had spent years cultivating his collection. On the other hand, it probably violated the policy against sexual harassment. "Yes, it does!" I told him.

When the first female crew member stepped aboard, an amazing thing happened. Instead of a fraternity house environment where sailors used the "f-word" as a noun, verb, adjective, preposition, and any other way you could possibly imagine, sailors became more ... polite. All of the sudden, salty old sailors started saying "please" and "thank you." They held the door open for shipmates and took pride in their seamanship and knowledge of their equipment. The male/female dynamic was a non-issue, but integrating women into the crew improved the professionalism of our workplace.

I thought of this during the 2010 legislative session. The Democratic Senate caucus had 21 members and 11 were women. We introduced legislation making it illegal for insurance companies to discriminate against women in rate-setting. We outlawed the shackling of women prisoners in our jails during childbirth. We passed the "Civility Resolution," created "Conflict Resolution Month," and established the "Pay Equity Commission."

In 2010 the Republican Senate caucus had 14 members and only one woman. My shipboard experience seemed relevant as I watched my Republican colleagues launch rubber bands across the chamber in the waning days of the session. I thought of it when a Republican Senator moved to recess so he could experiment with his rubber band ball (he wanted to drop it from the dome to the first floor to see how high it would bounce). And I thought of it when a Democratic colleague came to me and said she had talked one of the Republicans out of climbing out the second floor window and walking around the the Capitol on the two-foot-wide ledge that encircles the building (he had done it in past years, but thought it unwise in 2010 because he was getting older).

I'm not saying we shouldn't have fun when we work in the legislature. A sense of humor is important. If we didn't laugh at ourselves, we would certainly cry. I am saying that women in the process bring a calming effect and in many ways create a more civil and professional work environment. A fraternity house atmosphere is not constructive for doing the people's work.

Headed into 2011, the Democratic caucus will have 20 Senators - one less than 2010. Thirteen Democratic Senators will be women. The Republicans picked up a seat and will return with 15 Senators. Their new member is ... thank goodness ... a woman. A little less testosterone will be good for the democratic process.

Hopefully, this will help elevate the level of professionalism at the Capitol just like it did on the USS Hewitt.