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Women in the US Senate

Tammy Baldwin speaks on Capitol Hill against the Defence of Marriage Act
Tammy Baldwin has become the first openly gay candidate to be elected to the Senate. 
The US Senate's image as bastion of grey-haired men took a hit  when a slew of victories by female candidates took the number of women in the upper house to a record 20. These women have a diversity of background and purpose that renders any stereotyping moot. What they all seem to share, however, is a desire to work together and a pragmatic approach to the political process that has long been missing from Capitol Hill. Here's an introductory look at what could be a powerful cohort in DC.

Senator-elect Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii)

The first Asian American woman elected to the US Senate was born in Japan and came to the US in 1959, at the age of eight. After two terms as Hawaii's lieutenant governor she was elected to the House of Representatives in 2006. The National Organization for Women consistently endorsed her for co-sponsoring legislation to advance women's rights. She is married with one stepson and is a passionate advocate of quality early education. In elementary school, she served as the lunchtime student cashier in return for a hot lunch.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan)

Stabenow was a co-sponsor of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which ensures that women receive equal pay for equal work and was the first bill signed into law by Barack Obama in 2009. She was a US congresswoman from 1997 to 2001, when she was elected to the Senate. A mother and grandmother, she is the daughter of a second world war veteran. She has focused intensely on veterans' affairs in Michigan – the state is home to 750,000 – opening clinics, authoring legislation to protect their healthcare and education benefits and creating programs to help those with PTSD and other traumatic brain injuries.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts)

Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren with her husband Bruce Mann during an election night rally at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel in Boston. Photograph: Michael Dwyer/AP
Warren is possibly the most high-profile female candidate of the year, having reclaimed Ted Kennedy's seat for the Democrats, from Republican Scott Brown. A Harvard Law School professor with a background in bankruptcy law, she was appointed by senator Harry Reid to oversee and evaluate the government's bailout of financial institutions in 2008. After working as a special assistant to the president. Warren was a strong candidate to run the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Opposition from Treasury secretary Tim Geithner and Republican members of Congress killed her chances and she returned to Harvard, where she decided to run for the Senate. She has a son and a daughter and has co-authored two economic books with her daughter. She is a natural candidate for the Senate banking committee.

Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin)

A 50-year-old who is being hailed across the country as the first openly gay candidate to be elected to the US Senate. Equally as important, though, is the fact that she is Wisconsin's first female senator. She has served on Capitol Hill in the House since 1999 as a self-described "proud progressive", promoting healthcare reform and pay equality for women. While in the House she wrote legislation to extend federal benefits to same-sex partners, passed expanded hate-crimes legislation and promoted stronger law enforcement regarding sexual crimes and violence against women. Until 2010 she lived with her partner of 15 years, Lauren Azar, commissioner of the public service commission in Wisconsin. The couple are now separated.

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington)

This will be the 54-year-old's third term in the Senate. Best known for her strong stand on the environment, she is passionately against deforestation and drilling in Alaska and continues to look for alternate energy sources. Still, as senator she helped Boeing win a contract with the US Air Force that will bring 11,000 jobs to her area. Cantwell's first job in politics was on Jerry Springer's (failed) gubernatorial campaign, before he became a TV star, and she served in the House of Representatives between 1992 and 1994. After her defeat she went to work for the internet firm Real Networks for five years – a job that reportedly made her a multimillionaire. When she was first urged to run for office, in 1986, she famously said: "No way, I always thought I'd get married and have kids and do politics later." She is single and when in Edmond, Washington, lives with her mother, a Roman Catholic.

Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington)

Washington's other female senator, Murray did not have to run for re-election this year. Instead she had the much more daunting task of serving as the Democratic senatorial campaign committee's chairwoman – as such she gets much credit for the Democrats' larger than expected majority. First elected in 1992, when she became famous for self-deprecatingly describing herself as just "a mom in tennis shoes", the 62-year-old's 20 years in the Senate have granted her seniority and considerable power. In addition to chairing the DSCC (twice) she is the majority conference secretary, which makes her the Senate's highest-ranking woman and its fourth-highest Democrat. Murray voted against the war in Iraq but now chairs the committee on veteran's affairs. Originally a pre-school teacher, she is married with two grown children.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California)

Dianne Feinstein, Saxby Chambliss, Mike Rogers
Intelligence committee chair Senator Dianne Feinstein flanked by Senator Saxby Chambliss and, House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP
The 79-year-old is set to begin her fourth term in the Senate. In an indication of how little chance the Republicans thought they had of defeating her, her challenger, Elizabeth Emken, managed to raise only $677,000. Feinstein's haul was over $9m and she went on to win with nearly 60% of the vote. Feinstein currently chairs the select committee on intelligence, the first woman to hold that position. A former mayor of San Francisco, she is a popular politician, priding herself on working on both sides of the aisle on issues from the environment to national security to healthcare. (She has raised more than $65m for breast cancer research.) Feinstein is extremely wealthy – her net worth hovers somewhere around $70m – and her daughter is presiding judge of the San Francisco superior court.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California)

California is another state that has two female senators, and Boxer is another old hand. She has been in the Senate since 1993 and before that served six terms in the House of Representatives. She is also senior enough to chair two Senate committees – environment and public works, and ethics. Boxer, a native of Brooklyn, New York, moved to California in the 1960s and first ran for local office in 1972. She is a dedicated defender of women's reproductive rights and has written or co-sponsored a number of bills to improve women's healthcare – one with former senator Hillary Clinton, to whom Boxer was related by marriage, after her daughter Nicole married Clinton's brother Tony in 1994. (The couple divorced in 2000.) Boxer believes in same-sex marriage and gun control. In her spare time, she has written two political thrillers.

Senator Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana)

Landrieu comes from a political family – her brother is the mayor of New Orleans, and her father served as New Orleans mayor and as secretary of housing and urban development in the Carter administration. She has been in the Senate since 1997. For the past seven years much of her energy has been devoted to rebuilding Louisiana after hurricane Katrina, and she has been equally intent on rebuilding Fema. As a conservative Democrat she often votes with Republican members of the Senate; in 2009 she told reporters she had voted yes in a key healthcare reform vote in return for $300m federal dollars to her state. The chair of the small business committee, she also holds a seat on the powerful appropriations committee and chairs the subcommittee on homeland security. About to turn 57, she is married with two children.

Senator-elect Mary "Heidi" Kathyrn Heitkamp (D-North Dakota)

Heitkamp is an environmental lawyer and former state attorney general – a job she held for eight years – and is widely seen as an independent rather than someone who will toe the party line. In 2000 she ran for governor but had to briefly halt her campaign when she was found to have breast cancer. She resumed the race less than two weeks after a mastectomy but lost and didn't run for office again until now. In the meantime she has been working as a lawyer and consultant, as well as serving on the board of directors of the Dakota Gassification Company. Heitkamp used her breast cancer experience in her campaign this year, saying: "Twelve years ago I beat cancer – after going through that, all of the political attack ads from out-of-state special-interest groups seem pretty silly. When it comes to the healthcare bill, there are good things and there are some serious problems that make no sense at all. But we can't go back to the days when people could be denied care because of a pre-existing condition – and that's just what my opponent voted to do." She won her seat by less than one percentage point, when her opponent conceded rather than demand a recount.

Senator Kay Hagan (D-North Carolina)

Hagan is famous for having defeated the incumbent senator Elizabeth Dole in 2008, becoming the first woman to defeat a female incumbent. She is currently serving her first term. A proponent of same-sex marriage and a woman's right to choose, the first piece of legislation she co-sponsored was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. She has also written legislation protecting veterans health benefits because, as she puts it, she "hails from a proud military family". Hagan has made a point of making herself as accessible as possible to her constituents, opening five offices across the state and hosting Carolina Coffee sessions in Washington every Wednesday that the Senate is in session, meeting North Carolinians for coffee and donuts. She is a former Sunday school teacher and is married with two daughters.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota)

The 62-year-old easily beat her opponent for a second term this election, with news organizations calling the race for her moments after the polls closed. A moderate Democrat with high approval ratings, in 2006 Klobuchar became the first woman elected to represent Minnesota in the Senate. Previously she had been both a defense and a prosecuting attorney. Since being elected she has gained national recognition: Working Mother Magazine named her as a 2008 "best in Congress"; the American Prospect called her "a woman to watch"; MSNBC said she could be a possible nominee to the US supreme court; and the New York Times listed her as one of the 17 women most likely to become the first female president of the United States. She is married with a daughter.

Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine)

For a long time Collins was known as one of Maine's two female senators, but since Olympia Snowe stepped down this year, she becomes the state's senior senator. About to turn 60, Collins has spent her entire professional life in politics, first working for William Cohen (a congressman, then a senator) and then for governor John R McKernan Jr. The Senate seat she won in 1996 was previously Cohen's. Collins has never missed a roll call vote and is known for a mainstream, bipartisan approach. She was born and brought up in an old Maine lumber-owning family – each of her parents served as mayor of her hometown, Caribou. Collins was married for the first time this summer, to 73-year-old Thomas Daffron, a political consultant. Hillary Clinton hosted her engagement party, which was attended by every female senator and the former US supreme court justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland)

Mikulski, a fixture on Capitol Hill, is the Senate's longest-serving woman and the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right, 26 years ago. As a sign of her political stature – physically she is tiny – she was given a speaking role at this year's Democratic national convention. She used the opportunity to eloquently describe what it means to have women as US senators.
"The women of the Senate are like the US Olympic team: we come in different sizes, but we sure are united in our determination to do the best for our country! We've built families, businesses and communities. We're Sunday school teachers and former governors, prosecutors and moms in tennis shoes. I was a social worker for Baltimore families. Now I'm a social worker building opportunities for families throughout America.
"We work on macro issues and macaroni and cheese issues. When women are in the halls of power, our national debate reflects the needs and dreams of American families."
Mikulski's priorities are about quality of life. She wrote the law requiring federal standards for mammograms and fought for uninsured women to get screenings and treatment for breast and cervical cancer. She wants to double the number of Pell grants, and she wrote legislation to keep seniors from going bankrupt while paying for a spouse's nursing home care. A single woman, she returns to her home in Maryland every night.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire)

Shaheen is the only woman to have been both a governor and a senator. She was elected to the Senate for New Hampshire in 2008, having served three terms as its governor. A liberal in a state whose motto is "Live Free or Die", she is pro-choice, pro-education, pro-universal healthcare and pro-equal rights. She is pro-stem-cell research. As governor she made it illegal for New Hampshire to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. She also abolished a state law that said abortion was a felony. In the Senate, Shaheen and senator Susan Collins co-sponsored a bill for discharged hospital patients, in order to decrease the need for re-hospitalization. She has also fought to lower the cost of prescription drugs and bring more generics to the marketplace. A former school teacher, she has voted to increase funding for Head Start and to increase the number of Pell grants. She is married with three grown daughters and seven grandchildren. Her husband, Bill Shaheen, was Al Gore's New Hampshire campaign manager.

Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire)

Senator Kelly Ayotte
Senator Kelly Ayotte campaigns for Mitt Romney in Manchester, New Hampshire. Photograph: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters
New Hampshire's other female senator is a Republican. Ayotte also came to the Senate from state politics, having served as New Hampshire's attorney general. She was elected to the Senate two years ago, with 60% of the vote. The 44-year-old was named citizen of the year in 2008 by New Hampshire's Union Leader newspaper, for successfully leading efforts to secure the first death penalty conviction on the state in more than 60 years. Her pro-death penalty stance might come from the time she spent as chief of the homicide unit. Ayotte supported repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a market-based approach. She is also in favor of limiting medical malpractice claims. She supports a balanced budget amendment and disapproves of entitlement programs in their current form. Ayotte is married to a former A-10 pilot who flew combat missions in the Iraq war. Her husband now runs a gardening and snow removal business. They have two children.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)

Appointed to the Senate in 2002 by her father, former senator then governor Frank Murkowski, Lisa Murkowski lost the Republican primary in 2010 but won the general election after a write-in vote campaign. Overshadowed by the more famous Republican woman from Alaska, Sarah Palin (who beat Frank Murkowski for governor in 2006), Murkowski has worked hard to beat any accusations of nepotism. She is the ranking member on the committee on energy and natural resources and, unsurprisingly for an Alaskan native, she is pro-drilling. As she puts it on her website, she has introduced legislation "to tap the estimated 10.4bn barrels of oil and 8.6tn cubic feet of natural gas in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; promote development of the energy resources found on America's outer continental shelf by expanding federal revenue sharing with coastal states; promote construction of a natural gas pipeline connecting Alaska's north slope with lower 48 energy markets; and promote the research and development of renewable energy." Murkowksi explains her approach to energy policy by describing her upbringing in Alaska, "where oil and gas production form the backbone of the state's economy. Petroleum development in Alaska accounts for more than 42,000 jobs – a third of the state's employment and a third of its gross state product." She is married, with two sons.

Senator-elect Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska)

Fischer, 61, is a Tea Party favorite, and beat Bob Kerrey to take this seat from the Democrats. Kerrey, a two-term Senator, had served as governor in the 1980s, and the race was expected to be close, but Fischer won comfortably. Having held a decisive lead for much of the race, she won Nebraska's Senate election with 58% of the vote. Fischer, a born-and-bred Nebraskan who ran the family ranch before entering politics, is a fiscal Republican who campaigned to cut spending, shrink government and address welfare reform.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri)

By the end of the 2012 campaign, McCaskill was famous for not being Todd Akin. But that is to underestimate the record of the 59-year-old senior senator from Missouri, who now begins her second term. She is the first woman elected to represent Missouri in the Senate and was one of the first senators to endorse Barack Obama for president, when her 18-year-old daughter pointed out that she teared up every time she heard Obama speak. McCaskill's two daughters have been a big feature in her political life, written about as style icons and often featuring in their mother's tweets. In the Senate, she co-sponsored one of Obama's few pieces of legislation, to ensure care of veterans. She also worked with Mary Landrieu on the overhaul of Fema and supported legislation that provided Missouri women with free mammograms, bone-density scans and cervical cancer screenings with no co-pay. Last year she was involved in a scandal, when it emerged that she had failed to pay more than $300,000 in state property taxes on a private plane that she owned. She also used taxpayer dollars to pay for nearly 90 flights. McCaskill ended up repaying the Treasury $88,000 for the flight and selling "the damn plane" for a loss. McCaskill's 84-year-old mother died in late October, a week before the election. Her mother had been the first woman elected to the Columbia city council, in 1971, and often worked on her daughter's campaigns.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York)

Gillibrand was elected to the Senate for a full six-year term this year. She was appointed to fill Hillary Clinton's Senate seat in 2009, when Clinton left for the State Department. She hit the ground running, and New York was soon buzzing that she had presidential aspirations of her own – possibly for as soon as 2016. The results of this election – she won more than 70% of the vote – will do little to stop those rumors. Nor will the fact that she spent time campaigning for other Democratic women and launched a national campaign, OffTheSidelines, to get more women involved in politics. The former congresswoman represented upstate New York in the House. She has two young sons and has made motherhood a cornerstone of her career, publicly losing her baby weight and focusing on childcare, education and lower property taxes. Besides her connection to Clinton, Gillibrand has a relationship with the New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, having served as special counsel when he was secretary of housing and urban development.

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