WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–In March, freshman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a former state senator from Florida, took on the high-profile role of guiding House Democrats’ opposition to the GOP’s political and legislative attempts to prevent the removal of a feeding tube from Terri Schiavo.

In February, House Republican leaders elected Kentucky’s Anne Northup to lead their party’s public relations campaign on behalf of President Bush’s top item for his second term: diverting some payroll taxes to personal investment accounts instead of Social Security.

In December, Democrats Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington all took on leadership positions within the Senate, enhancing their ability make decisions about the direction of their party and putting them on course to climb higher.

And in November, Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a North Carolina Republican who ran for president in 2000 and who has served in two Cabinet posts, became the first female ever to chair her party’s campaign committee.

While the ascent of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California to the post of highest ranking U.S. woman has made it onto the major-media radar, the steady rise of women throughout the political realm has attracted less attention.

Over the last dozen years–while women have been making only incremental numerical gains in the congressional seat count–their influence has skyrocketed as they have risen through the committee and leadership structure in both chambers of Congress.

“The more seniority you get . . . the more important it is, because you rise up in terms of your influence in the committee system, and that’s very important,” said California’s Boxer. “The longer you stay the more influence you have, because you just know your work better.”

Minority of Seats

Women now hold 14 seats in the Senate and 66 seats in the House, not including three non-voting members from Guam, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Although they make up 51 percent of the population, women now comprise roughly 15 percent of Congress, figures that have risen only gradually since 1992, the year women nearly doubled their representation in the House and the Senate.

But while still a reverse image of their population percentage, those 15 percent of women in Congress hold a higher percentage of leadership positions, giving them a greater ability to shape their parties’ agenda, steer legislation through Congress and attract media attention to their priorities.

In part, the gains have come from the staying power of those female lawmakers who made it into office and then mounted a collective effort to break into the inner leadership circles.

Pelosi may be the brightest star of these, but a galaxy surrounds her.

In the 109th Congress, Democratic women in the Senate hold 29 percent of their party’s top leadership positions (2 out of 7) while Republican female senators hold 33 percent (2 out of 6). In the House, Republican women hold 11 percent of those posts (1 out of 9) while Democratic women hold 25 percent (2 out of 8).

These numbers do not take into account a number of women who have been appointed to second-tier leadership posts this Congress, positions that give them clout and put them on the fast track to further promotions.

“Women aren’t just tokens anymore,” said Rep. Hilda Solis, a California Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, a bipartisan coalition of congresswomen. “We’re on committees. We’re ranking members on committees. We’re even on ‘Meet the Press.'”

Long Push to Leadership

Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana, became the first woman to serve in Congress in 1917. But it took another 67 years for members of Congress to elect a female lawmaker to represent them in their leadership structure. That barrier was broken in 1984, when Illinois Republican Lynn Morley Martin was elected to the first of two terms as vice chair of the House Republican Conference.

In the two decades since then, women have actively climbed the leadership ladder, taking on responsibilities such as drafting their party’s platforms, overseeing communications operations, raising money and recruiting candidates for political campaigns, whipping up support for priority legislation, and, in Pelosi’s case, playing a key role determining the shape of the agenda and the direction of the party.

At the same time, women have also risen in stature on congressional committees.

Former Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, a Kansas Republican, became the first woman to chair a major Senate committee when she took the helm of a committee formerly called the Labor and Human Resources in 1995. Now, a decade later, two Republican women chair major Senate committees and four Democratic women are ranking members on major House committees, positions that they have used to promote issues of importance to women.

As chair of the Senate Small Business Committee, for example, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine has helped to allocate federal funding to help female entrepreneurs secure start-up money and funds for technical assistance. She has also advocated for a micro-loan program for U.S. women and for a study on women’s procurement practices and programs that would help business owners pay for health insurance for their employees.

Snowe’s home state colleague, Republican Sen. Susan Collins, has used her position as chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to push for a national museum dedicated to women’s history.

“Virtually all the women who are in Congress do feel they have a responsibility to look out for women, not just in their districts but across the country,” said Sue Carroll of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. “Now the way that plays out can be different depending on their ideology. But they definitely do feel that responsibility.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief for Women’s eNews.

For more information:

Center for American Women and Politics
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey:

Bipartisan Caucus Pushes Women’s Issues in 109th:

Hurry Up History! We Need a Female President:

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