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November 25, 2014

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Twenty and counting

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You may have heard that there are going to be 20 women in the Senate next year. I’ve been trying to figure out what that means.

Well, it means one-fifth. Whoop-di-do.

Still, up to now there have only been 39 women senators in all of American history. In 2001, the entire female caucus published a book about their experiences called “Nine and Counting.”

So I say, look on the bright side. In the House, 78 women were just elected. True, that’s still under 20 percent. Nevertheless, when it comes to the proportion of women in the lower chamber of its national legislature, next year the United States is almost certainly going to soar past the United Arab Emirates and possibly even Indonesia.

Feel free to blame the Republicans. After the elections, the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, pointed out that next session most of the Democratic members will be something other than white men. The Democrats named Rep. Nita Lowey of New York the ranking member on the Appropriations Committee, the chamber’s historic Alpha Dog Central. Meanwhile, over on the Republican side, Speaker John Boehner announced a list of new committee chairs that was entirely, um, pale male. After the ensuing outcry, he stuck Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan in a vacant top post on the House Administration Committee, a panel on which she had never served.

“In her new post, Candice will provide the leadership needed to keep operating costs down, save taxpayer dollars and help lawmakers use new technology to better engage with their constituents,” Boehner said.

Having any committee chairmanship is better than not having one. But I believe I speak on behalf of many American women when I say: Oh, good grief.

But let’s cheerfully return to the fact that there are going to be more women in Congress. What does it mean? These days, the answers are mainly about interpersonal relations than any particular issue. “It’s not that they’re going to agree on everything,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. “I think in some ways, it will be about: Will they talk to each other and work with each other on some things and at least be able to communicate with each other?”

She’s right, and while sociability is a pretty low bar, this is the Washington in which everyone complains that bipartisan dinner parties are a thing of the past. The Senate women most definitely dine together. Regularly, in the Capitol, in a room named after the late Strom Thurmond, an infamous pincher of ladies’ bottoms.

“I know; the irony,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

But about the issues. There are plenty of veterans who remember the days when women banded together in bipartisan battles on behalf of their sex. Lowey pointed to a fight to get the National Institutes of Health to study women as well as men when it did clinical trials. (“Even the lab rats were male.”)

Now, not so much. Barely at all, as a matter of fact. The House women’s caucus did hold some hearings on the question of pay parity, but it never took a position on what to do to reduce the wage gap between male and female workers, since the Democratic and Republican co-chairs don’t agree on actual bill proposals.

One of the reasons is the dwindling band of moderate, pro-choice Republican women. Diversity is always a good thing — if you’ve got to have a Tea Party, I’d rather not have an all-male one. But a female lawmaker who opposes giving poor women access to family planning services is not really playing for the team.

In the Senate, the small band of Republican women has included influential moderates such as Snowe; Susan Collins, also of Maine; and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who was forced to run as a write-in when a Tea Party candidate swiped the Republican nomination. “Any time I’ve been successful, I’ve had a woman Republican helping me on the other side of the aisle,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

The other day, Gillibrand proudly noted that every woman in the Senate had supported an amendment to the defense bill she’d sponsored, despite Republican opposition. In the current session, she said, “I think it’s the first thing we all voted on.”

The amendment would expand treatment for the autistic children of members of the military. Really, folks, you would not think rallying around that one would be all that hard. But once again, we’re going to celebrate the clearing of a bar rather than pointing out that it’s kind of low.

And all but one of the current 17 women voted in favor of ratifying the U.N. treaty on the disabled. Although the Senate being the Senate, the treaty failed.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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  1. There's only one thing better than a Democratic woman in Congress. And that's a Republican woman. The more women the better. God bless and protect them all.

    CarmineD