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Women of the Year: In Congress, Record Numbers, Record Diversity and New Power

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.

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).

USA Today

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