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WASHINGTON — When Arkansas' Hattie Caraway was first appointed in 1931 to fill out the final year of her late husband's Senate term, she felt isolated in the otherwise all-boys club.
Rebecca Felton of Georgia was the only other woman to have served in the Senate, and something of a historical anomaly, having served just one day.
Caraway was given the same desk that had been assigned to Felton.
“I guess they wanted as few of them contaminated as possible,” Caraway wryly observed.
Caraway went on to become the first woman to win a full Senate term. Her portrait now hangs in a corridor just off the Senate floor. Of the approximately 2,000 senators to have served, a mere 44 have been women.
But things change. Republican Sen. Deb Fischer was just sworn in as the first woman elected to a full Senate term from Nebraska and joins a record 20 women now in Congress' top chamber.
“It's historic,” Fischer told The World-Herald last week during a Capitol Hill interview, referring to both milestones.
As Fischer settles into her new job, she hopes that the bipartisan collaboration of the female senators will help make Congress more capable of addressing the nation's pressing challenges than in recent years. She notes that she's been setting up one-on-one meetings with many of her new colleagues from both genders and both sides of the aisle.
“Maybe we women reach out more,” Fischer said. “I work on relationships. I don't know if that's because I'm a woman or it's just part of my personality.”
The women of the Senate have established a certain tradition of solidarity. They meet regularly for dinner, led by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the longest-serving woman in Congress.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who will be one of Fischer's mentors, noted that those dinners typically are held in a room named for the late Strom Thurmond, the old-school conservative senator from South Carolina.
“In his last days he was not exactly known as, well, let's just say it was a different culture. ... I just think that people have adjusted just as they have in other workplaces to women in positions of power,” Klobuchar said.
In a 2000 interview with USA Today, the women of the Senate (then numbering nine) talked about how they shared experiences from their political careers of being dismissed. As a teacher lobbying her State Legislature, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was told by one lawmaker that she was “just a mom in tennis shoes.”
Even in the Senate, they said, they sometimes felt like curiosities.
“If three of us are talking on the floor, inevitably one of them will come up and say 'What are you plotting?'” Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said at the time. “Three of them can talk all the time, and we never go up to them and say 'What are you plotting?'”
Or, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at the time:
“The Senate has traditionally and historically been an all-male club. ... We are still, in a sense, interlopers. It still is, in a sense, an uphill battle to show that you're just as effective as a male, which after all is the bottom line — that you can do the job just as well and, in some respects, perhaps better.”
In interviews with The World-Herald, several senators cited examples of working with other women to get legislation moved. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., noted that her biggest legislative successes so far have come when she worked with GOP women. That included the STOCK Act aimed at creating more transparency on senators' personal financial affairs, which she put together with the help of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
“We've seen so much gridlock and partisan bickering, and one of the things that I think the new 20 women can do is try a different approach,” Gillibrand said. “Women are often very good at reaching consensus, being bipartisan, finding common ground and building solutions from there.”
Nebraska and the Empire State are about a thousand miles apart — geographically and politically — but that didn't stop Fischer and Gillibrand from meeting for lunch recently at a popular Capitol Hill bistro.
“There's a lot of issues that we'll have in common,” said Gillibrand, whose state includes remote agricultural areas far from midtown Manhattan. “We have a lot of rural areas that we both represent.”
Capitol Hill today is much different from what it was in 1916, when Jeannette Rankin won the distinction of being the first woman elected to serve in Congress.
The number of women in Congress shot up from 32 to 54 as a result of the 1992 election, leading it to be dubbed the Year of the Woman.
Mikulski objected to the phrase.
“Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus,” Mikulski said at the time. “We're not a fad, a fancy or a year.”
Mikulski recently became the first woman to take the gavel of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and at least a half dozen Senate committees have women in charge.
“Now women have seniority,” said Michele Swers, an associate professor of American government at Georgetown University who has written two books on women and representation in Congress.
Nancy Pelosi leads the House Democrats and was the body's first female speaker. And the House GOP leadership team includes several women.
One very practical reflection of how things have changed is that the most recent Congress marked the opening of the first women's restroom near the House floor, to match the one available to male legislators.
“It's nice to have 20 women here,” Fischer said of the new Senate. “That offers another point of diversity, which is always good, whether you're in the United States Senate or whether you serve on a school board.”
But the former Valentine, Neb., school board member also is quick to point out that other points of diversity are important as well, noting her background as a state legislator and rancher at a time when negotiations over a new farm bill continue.
For all the talk of bipartisan cooperation among the women, some expert observers caution against expecting much immediate change.
The ideological polarization of modern campaign politics is a powerful force, after all, and the Senate ranks of women remain relatively limited.
“Women are still a pretty small percentage of the body, so I wouldn't say that this increase ... is going to suddenly make the institution much more collegial,” Swers said.
Women in the Senate over the years have tended to be Democrats or moderate Republicans. Fischer could easily emerge as the body's most conservative woman, and she is one of only four Republicans in the group.
Still, Fischer mentor Klobuchar said she's looking forward to working with Fischer on practical issues such as transportation.
“The fact that she even asked me to do this shows that she's walking a different path and wants to get things done,” Klobuchar said.
Deb Fischer settles into new routine, new digs, as U.S. senator
WASHINGTON — Since being sworn in, Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb Fischer has been settling into her new offices in the Senate Hart Office Building and making sure there are plenty of reminders of home around.
There's the glass jar filled with Bakers chocolates, the book on “Cowboy Values” and the container of sand from her Valentine ranch that a neighbor once gave her so she would always remember where she hails from.
And the photos of her brand-new granddaughter, whose middle name is Debra.
Fischer and her husband, Bruce, loaded up a U-Haul last month, hitched it to their SUV and drove from Nebraska to Washington in two days.
They've rented a furnished condo in the same building near the U.S. Capitol where Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., has a place.
She's had a busy first couple of weeks that included a visit at the Capitol with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. She's also been digging into briefing books from her committees so she's up to speed on pending issues.
With a spot on Armed Services, she'll be vetting former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary. Through her seats on the Commerce and Environment and Public Works Committees, she'll be looking into transportation issues and considering how the Army Corps of Engineers can better manage flooding along the Missouri River.
She said she was glad Congress struck a deal to avert most of the tax increases threatened by the fiscal cliff, but was disappointed they did nothing on the spending side.
She hopes they can get serious about budget cuts when they deal with the sequester. Those automatic budget cuts were delayed two months as part of the deal. She says we need smarter trims and not those automatic across-the-board cuts, but she's not behind President Barack Obama's call for additional tax revenues to help offset the need for cuts.
“The revenue side has already been addressed,” Fischer said.
Aside from serious policy work, she's been trying to get to know her new colleagues.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., approached her on the Senate floor to ask if he could be her mentor, and she told him she already had arranged to have the Senate's other Minnesota Democrat, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, be hers.
“He was so disappointed, I told him he could adopt me,” Fischer said.
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