11/04/2013 11:15 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Women Who Saved the Country

There's an old saying I learned during the early days of the feminist movement about women working together toward a common goal: "One is a pest, two is a team, three is a coalition." I've always liked that comment because it speaks directly to what I believe most deeply about women: that there's safety -- and power -- in numbers. This solidarity was on full display during the final days of the government shutdown. As the New York Times first reported on October 14, the stubborn logjam was finally broken when a group of women Senators decided enough was enough and spearheaded the compromise that got the ball rolling. Those women were, among others: Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D, MD), Sen. Susan Collins (R, ME), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D, MO), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R, AK), Sen. Patty Murray (D, WA) and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R, NH),

So how did the minority gender of the U.S. Senate -- 20 out of 100 senators -- manage to knock some sense into the heads of their more obstructionist male colleagues?

"It's all about trust," Sen. McCaskill told me last week. "It is very hard to leave your position for a compromise if you don't trust the other person. And we trust one another. We may disagree -- we're not monolithic, obviously -- but I know that Susan Collins will never throw me under the bus; and she knows I will never throw her under the bus. None of us are spoiling for a fight. You often see the men in the Senate calling each other names, but you don't see any of that with us. That's because we have less patience for the theatrics, and don't engage in 'it's my way or the highway' -- which caused the whole problem this last go-around."

While, like all politicians, the women of the Senate are not immune to robust ideological debate (Obamacare, the Pentagon policy on sexual assault), when they exhibit unanimity, Sen. McCaskill told me, they send a powerful message to their male colleagues.

"I think the guys get a little intimidated when we're unified," she said, "and we look for those issues that all of us, regardless of party, can speak about with one voice -- like sex trafficking or funding for breast cancer research. The men know it's very hard to push back at us when we lock elbows because, when we do, we're a formidable force."

Eager to learn more about this, I contacted two of the leading players in this last month's shutdown showdown -- Sens. Mikulski and Collins (one from each side of the aisle) -- and asked them to tell me about it. Here's what they had to say:

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barbara mikulski

Marlo Thomas: When you and your colleagues broke the logjam, it came as a relief to many Americans, especially in this time of political disharmony. Is there a new energy among women in the Senate?
Barbara Mikulski: Yes there is. And it's an energy that has a real vitality, because there are now 20 of us, and we come from different states and from different parts of the political spectrum. And I must give the Republican women credit, because there are only four of them and 16 of us, and they still hang in there.
But the energy you're talking about, it's not necessarily new -- it has developed over time. And it's important to note that we are not a caucus -- because a caucus implies that you meet about legislation and hammer out the details. This is different. We are not in lock-step, and we don't always have to agree on something. But we work hard to seek common ground, and we always pursue a zone of civility and intellectual rigor and warmth. We may not always agree on means, but we usually agree on goals.

Thomas: When you say that you focus on civility, are you implying that there isn't any civility from the men?
Mikulski: I am implying that the institution has become less civil, and that the new partisanship -- the intense, nasty, prickly partisanship -- is less civil. During the shutdown, it was pretty intense.

Thomas: Tell me about that.
Mikulski: Okay, so there we were, stalemating. The intensity was growing. The prickly feelings were growing, both within the institution and outside. That's when Sue Collins stood up on the Senate floor and said, "I have a three-point plan." When she said that, she was immediately backed by Lisa Murkowski and Amy Klobuchar (D, MN) and others. Sue, being Sue, put together a bipartisan effort, and that began to change the tone and create an energy. We saw a path forward, and began working with the Democratic leadership and talking with the White House behind the scenes. We all reached out to the other side of the aisle -- the other side of the dome -- and insisted that we could find this sensible center. And, by the way, there were a lot of very good men who wanted to find that center, too. In the final vote, 27 Republicans voted for the deal.

Thomas: Still, there's an awful lot of discord coming from the Capitol these days. The public notices it and, I have to tell you, it's very depressing for us to watch.
Mikulski: It is very depressing. And if you listen on the Senate floor, you'll see that there's an emergence of a new, snarky way of talking to each other that the Parliamentarian actually called to order. Senators on the floor often refer to each other by their first names, which isn't right. There are rules. If I'm debating, say, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, I don't say, "Hey, Deb." Why would anybody do something like that? The reason for these rules of civility is to lay the groundwork for conflict resolution, to have mutual respect and mutual trust. The women in the Senate have been able to do that. We've gotten to know each other, visited each others' states, and tried to find something we could work on together.

Thomas: Things were far different when you first joined the Senate.

Mikulski: Absolutely. Back then it was just Nancy Kassebaum (R, KS) and me. We didn't get a whole new group of women until 1992, after the Anita Hill debacle. And that's when we began to develop this sense of camaraderie, and a passion for listening to one another. During the Gingrich era of partisan politics, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R, TX) and I began to host dinners. Everybody said we would never get along, but we did. And through those dinners -- which included a lot of laughs and letting off steam -- we bonded on a number of issues, like helping women who were homemakers have greater access to IRAs. Those dinners have now stood the test of time for almost 18 years.

Thomas: In those early days, how did you put up with the boys club? And even though you're now 20 out of 100, does that boys club still exist?
Mikulski: Well, I think there's been an evolution. Back when I first joined, it was more generational in how women were accepted in the institution. But the fact is, even though I was the only Democratic woman, I was never alone. I had Paul Sarbanes (D, MD) and Ted Kennedy (D, MA) and Chris Dodd (D, CT) -- people like that who were really helping me get started. But the answer is, now that there are 20 of us, we're more than just a voice and a vote. We're now Committee Chairmen and we can exercise real power.

Thomas: When Susan Collins' fellow Republican senator from Maine, Olympia Snowe, resigned from the Senate in 2012, she said it wasn't living up to the Founding Fathers' vision of representative democracy. And she underscored her belief that the "corrosive trend of winner-take-all politics" won't likely be able to be repaired from within. Did you feel a sense of abandonment when Snowe left? Or do you think there's some justification to her feelings of defeat?
Mikulski: Olympia's become a real outspoken advocate of bipartisanship, and I salute her for that. So we miss her very much; and we miss Kay Bailey Hutchinson, too. Olympia and I knew each other from the House. We had worked on many things together. We'd been to Cambodia and to refugee camps; we had worked on the women's health agenda; when women weren't included in the protocols at NIH. And we have a dear and deep personal friendship.

Thomas: But was she justified in saying, "We cannot fix this thing from the inside, so I'm out of here?"
Mikulski: Well, I'm not going to say whether she was justified or not. She had an important point to make. And one of the ways that deep politics works is when the voters and donors insist that we work on finding practical, affordable solutions to the nation's problems.

Thomas: From what I read, it sounds like many of the women in the Senate are true pals outside of the Capitol.
Mikulski: Yes we are. And we're even closer when it comes to issues that we have in common. Remember, the Constitution mandates that we're elected to represent our states; so we like to say, "It's not about gender, it's about the agenda." For instance, we coastal Senators have to worry about our whole seafood industry. Well, that immediately connects me to Sue Collins in Maine, Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, and Elizabeth Warren in New England. And on the west coast, there's Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. All of us have to worry about the men and women who work on the waterfront, keeping America's seafood supply going.
But, yes, we are also friends outside of politics. Four years ago I broke my ankle coming out of church, and I had to go in for surgery. One of the first calls I received was from Lisa Murkowski, who had broken her ankle in a skiing accident. She could not have been warmer and gave me every tip about where I could get physical therapy at the Capitol; and which bathrooms and elevators accommodated wheelchairs. She said, "If you need another woman by your side when you go in for surgery, just give me a buzz and I'll stick with you." It was so sweet.

Thomas: How do you think history will remember the events of last month, and the way women came together?
Mikulski: This issue was as big as it gets. We were involved in a government shutdown, and on the brink of the United States of America defaulting on its obligations with T-bills and heading to a junk-bond status. It was a national crisis. And into the breach came Susan, and she stood up with her three-point plan. Although that plan was not adapted, the tone -- the sense that people wanted to find a solution -- began to move the institution. Yes, the women were the initial organizers, but there were fine men on both sides of the aisle who participated.

Thomas: When this issue is revisited--whether it's January or February or whenever--do you believe that you and your women colleagues will be able to attack it with even more power than you would have, had you not just been through it in October?
Mikulski: Definitely. Right now we're already starting to work on these problems so that we don't have another last-minute crisis in January. That shows that we're getting back to pragmatic solutions and to give-and-take. And I think that's terrific.

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barbara mikulski

Marlo Thomas: I spoke with Senator Mikulski earlier about news reports that the women of the Senate were the force behind the compromise that brought an end of government shutdown last month; and she confirmed that, yes, women -- particularly you -- were responsible for that turnaround. True?
Susan Collins: Well, I do think that it's significant that women led the way. We did have a few good men to assist us -- and I don't want to slight their participation, which was definitely important -- but the fact is, women got the ball rolling. And I believe that the women of the Senate do have a special bond. We get together about once a month to have dinner, which has been going on for as long as I've been a senator. It actually started with Barbara Mikulski, who we consider to be the dean of the women Senators.

Thomas: She sure is.
Collins: And Kay Bailey Hutchison was part of that, too. I remember Barbara saying to me, when I was a brand new senator, that she wanted to help me learn the ropes in the Senate and the rules of the Senate. It was Barbara who encouraged me to seek a seat on the Appropriations Committee and tutored me on how to be effective in the process. And she did this despite the fact that we're not of the same party. That tells you something about the women of the Senate and the way we work together.

Thomas: Senator Mikulski is quick to point out that this cooperation happens despite your stands on particular issues.
Collins: That's right, we span the ideological spectrum. I always rebel against any notion that all women think alike or have the same views. We don't. But we do share some similar experiences from having been women in public life, and having overcome certain barriers that publicly elected women often run into. And in my view, we tend to be more problem-solving and pragmatic in our approach. I think that's what you saw happen last month. I put together a group of 14 of us to work on what I call it "the common sense caucus."

Thomas: And the function of that "caucus" is...
Collins: To work on reopening government, averting default and getting our nation back on track again. Although women make up only 20 percent of the Senate, the first two people to call me to say, "I'm in -- how can I help?" were women. I think that's pretty significant. And the men are getting a little sensitive about this.

Thomas: I would imagine. From what I saw in the news reports, it sounded as if you woke up one morning and said, "Okay, enough is enough." Is that what happened?
Collins: You know, it really is. I remember, I was sitting in my little Capitol office -- we have these small, one-room offices that are separate from our regular offices -- and it was the early days of the shutdown. I was watching the Senate floor and hearing colleague after colleague, on both sides of the aisle, railing against the other side. And nobody was offering a way forward, or some way to bridge the differences and try to get us out of this impasse, which was harming our country and causing an even deeper erosion in the confidence that people have in our ability to govern. My staff was all furloughed, so I started charting a three-point plan to try to get us back on track with a compromise. So I wrote up this quick speech and marched over to the floor and gave it. I never intended to speak on the Senate floor that day, but I was so disheartened by what I was witnessing -- and by the excessive partisanship -- that I just decided to go for it and, at least, try to tell the American people that I had an idea for a way to move forward. Then eventually it turned into a six-point plan.

Thomas: And?
Collins: And eventually the two leaders, Senators Mitch McConnell (R, KY; Senate minority leader) and Harry Reid (D, NV, Senate Majority Leader), put forth their plan that essentially took four of our six points. I think this is very telling. They don't like to concede that but they did.

Thomas: And your colleagues were supportive.
Collins: Yes, they were. On our side of the aisle it was Lisa Murkowski, Kelly Ayotte and John McCain (R, AZ); and on the other side -- I don't want to leave anyone out -- Amy Klobuchar played a key role, as did Mark Pryor (D, AR) and Joe Manchin (D, WV). To be fair, Senator Manchin was the first person to contact me on the Democratic side. But Amy certainly played a critical role throughout.

Thomas: You said say you were without your staff. Was this difficult?
Collins: Well, you know, I love my staff and I spent 12 years working for Bill Cohen (former Senator, R, ME), so I've been a staff member. But sometimes I think members are more effective when we just sit down and hash things out without having intermediaries or somebody to interpret it.

Thomas: You're often portrayed in the media as a tough cookie who's willing to put herself out there. Is that an accurate portrayal?
Collins: I often do -- and if you look at like the National Journal studies, I'm always ranked as either the first or second most bipartisan member of the Senate. I'm sure that that's frustrating to my Republican leaders at times, but I do reach across the aisle because I think that's how you get things done.

Thomas: No argument there. I asked this of Sen. Mikulski, and I'll ask you: Do you sense a new energy among the women in the Senate?
Collins: The women of the Senate have always played an important role -- we now have more women in key leadership positions, like Barbara Mikulski being Chair of Appropriations -- but I do believe this has emboldened us.

Thomas: You said earlier that, as women, you and your female colleagues have all had a common struggle being in politics. What is that common struggle? Being underestimated?
Collins: Yes, it's being underestimated. That is a very astute observation, incredibly astute. Most people don't realize that's what it is.

Thomas: Well, I was a television producer at age 24, and that's what I felt.
Collins: Yeah. I bet you did.

Thomas: Every now and then, somebody would say to me, "Wow, you're really smart." And I would think, Oh, puh-lease, because that just told me that, because they wore pants, they assumed they were smarter than me.
Collins: Exactly. When I first ran for governor of Maine back in 1994, I won in the eight-way Republican primary, but I got clobbered in the fall. And I will never forget this young banker telling me that he agreed with all of my positions on all the issues, but that he just couldn't imagine a woman running the state of Maine. What most amazed me about that comment was that he actually said it, and he wasn't ashamed of thinking it!

Thomas: I know. It's astounding.
Collins: But I do think that we're lucky in Maine, because we have a wonderful heritage of strong women Senators, starting with Margaret Chase Smith. Do I think there's still a glass ceiling to becoming governor? Yes. But that doesn't apply to the Senate. Yet I have noticed that, when men are elected to the Senate, there's an assumption that they automatically belong there -- that they earned their way and there's no barrier. With women, we have to prove ourselves before we're accepted. I remember when I was committee chairman of what became the Homeland Security Committee after the attacks of 9/11, I was helping to draft an Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act -- managing what was arguably the most important bill to pass that year -- and I encountered the underestimating you're talking about.

Thomas: In what way?
Collins: Well, some of the senior male members of the Senate just expected me to defer to them even though I was a committee chairman too. And I was the one who had brought the bill to the floor and really knew the bill. But I still had this feeling that I had to prove myself, because they underestimated my knowledge of the bill and my willingness to be tough in fighting back.

Thomas: You mentioned Olympia Snowe. How did you feel about her resigning from the Senate?
Collins: I was very sad about it because I felt -- and I still fell -- that I can help change things in Washington. Her conclusion was that the only way you can change things is from the outside. Well, I still believe I can affect change from the inside. And I will keep trying.