WASHINGTON — Years ago, as a novice representative from California, Nancy Pelosi sat quietly at many a caucus meeting while her colleagues discussed how they were going to bring peace to the Middle East and a chicken to every pot.
At one such conference, talk turned to family leave — and as a mother of five, she expected she would finally get asked her opinion. No such luck. Many meetings later, Pelosi would become speaker of the House, and by that time her gender was noted but largely immaterial. She was a powerful speaker because she ruled with an iron hand and did what previous powerful male speakers had done — only backward in high heels and an Armani suit, to paraphrase Ginger Rogers.
With five new women elected to the Senate last week, bringing the chamber’s total to 20, we are supposed to be all agog about the Year of the Woman (how many of those have we had?). Pardon me if I decline to celebrate. Not so much because winning an election isn’t a real achievement, but because the election was to the Senate — possibly the dullest, most provincial institution in a city full of them.
There will be 16 Democratic and four Republican women in the Senate next year, and at least 77 women (57 Democrats and 20 Republicans) in the House. In New Hampshire, there is now an all-girl band: a female governor, two female senators and two female members of the House.
As voters, too, women have come a long way from the day when they were thought to cast a ballot to match their husbands’. As a voting bloc, women are wielding power and narrowing the gender gap: Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts beat Sen. Scott Brown with a 20-point lead among women. Sen.-elect Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin defeated former governor Tommy Thompson resoundingly among women. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota crushed Kurt Bills across the board, especially among women.
Yet there is something about the Senate that crushes women when they arrive. If you think Augusta National is a bastion of green jackets and male-only grill rooms, visit the Senate. There are still spittoons, more men’s than women’s rooms, and unequal gym facilities. Seniority, stentorian oratory and meaningless courtesies abound. All the male senators see themselves as starring in a remake of “Advise and Consent,” with themselves as lions.
Women, by contrast, come in as lambs, anxious to get along, and they do. The women have a bipartisan supper club of sorts where they get together and get to know one another. Then-Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, a Democrat, had a shower for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, a Republican, when she adopted twins. Klobuchar, a Democrat, helped to throw a party for Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine before she got married last summer.
But while they’ve re-created the feeling of a bygone era, when senators lived in Washington and got to know one another, it hasn’t translated into significant policy making. Think of the signature legislation of the last few decades, referred to in shorthand by its sponsors’ names: Gramm-Rudman, McCain- Feingold, Nunn-Lugar. They are men, all.
There are few more respected senators than Maine’s Olympia Snowe, but she was never so important to the men as when she announced she would be leaving them. Republicans were furious — understandably — because she opened up a safe seat. It was won by an independent, Angus King, who is almost certain to caucus with Democrats.
The most powerful woman to serve in the Senate may have been Clinton, but that is as much because she had been first lady as because of her expertise on milk price supports. She was a rock star from the moment her heels clicked on the marble floors. Even rock-ribbed conservative and well-documented lech Strom Thurmond wanted to get on her good side: Moments after she was sworn in, he stepped into the aisle and asked for a hug.
Still, Clinton had to shrink to make herself small enough for the Senate, proving herself a workhorse, wooing men who had voted to convict her husband, and playing well with colleagues in her own party. Before she arrived, she was put on notice not to be too full of herself — with Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, then the Republican leader, wistfully (and jokingly?) hoping that perhaps lightning might strike her before she arrived. Lott eventually came around, joining forces with Clinton on legislation he cared about.
The one new woman who could prove to be bigger than the institution itself, like Clinton or Barack Obama, is Warren. She has already tried to work with powerful men in Washington — to reform the banks after they did their best to destroy the economy — and for her trouble, she was drummed out of town: One of the few bipartisan accomplishments in Washington of the last year was her expulsion from the Capitol by a coalition of men on both sides of the aisle, including a few in the White House.
You go, senator. One of the sweetest sights this January will be seeing her sworn in, hug or no. If she becomes a power center, it won’t be because she’s walking arm-in-arm with Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid.
In the meantime, I await the day when we celebrate not the Year of the Woman but the Year of the Man, because their numbers are so depleted that 20 of them in the same chamber is a miracle to behold. That’s the day we’ll know women have real power.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.