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A lot of fanfare followed last November's election when the number of women in the U.S. Senate hit an all-time high, 20. And quieter victories have followed. Female senators now claim an unprecedented number of leadership positions. As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, for the first time, women chair both the Appropriations and Budget Committees as well as half of the Armed Services Committees.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: When the Senate announced this week it had finally passed legislation to keep the government running until the end of the fiscal year, the woman who led the charge came striding into the Senate Appropriations Committee room ready to celebrate.

SENATOR BARBARA MIKULSKI: Hello. Here we are.

CHANG: Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland is under five feet tall, but don't mess with her. When she walks, people move out of the way.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Congratulations, Senator.

MIKULSKI: Thank you. Thank you. It was a big victory.

CHANG: Mikulski's the first woman ever to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee and is now the longest serving female in Congress. She was one of only two women in the Senate when she was elected back in 1986.

MIKULSKI: Dad, I know you're watching and your daughter is now a United States Senator.

CHANG: But a lot has changed since Mikulski's early days. Now, eight of the 20 main Senate committees are chaired by women. Much of that had to do with seniority, but Senate leaders also had a hand in bringing women up within the chamber. Bette Coed, one of the Senate's historians, says lawmakers knew they needed an image makeover after the world watched the Senate Judiciary Committee question Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas about sexual harassment.

BETTY COED: And there was that dais of senators that was all white males. And it got a lot of publicity at the time that here you have not only all white males sort of, you know, sitting in judgment over this would-be Supreme Court justice, but over Anita Hill as well, two African-Americans.

CHANG: So, Coed says, there was an effort by Senate leaders after the 1991 hearings to get the few women who trickled into the Senate into higher profile committees. After Diane Feinstein of California and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois were elected in 1992, then Senator Joe Biden personally approached them to invite them onto his Judiciary Committee.

SENATOR KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Women are attuned to the need to make things work.

CHANG: Kay Bailey Hutchison, the former Republican Senator of Texas, says all those stereotypes that women are consensus builders, effective listeners, there's actually something to that and that's what gets things done on the Hill. Democratic Senator Patty Murray from Washington State says her experience as a mom helps her run a very diverse budget committee.

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: Well, I think we do listen for where compromise is, in a good way. So, when someone tells us really strongly that this what they need, we find something within that that we can help them achieve. And, I mean, that's what we do with our kids, right?

CHANG: But it's not just making everyone feel included. Women have also used their outsider status to inject skepticism. For the first time, females now chair half of the sub committees in Armed Services, which oversees all military operations. Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire is one of those chairs.

SENATOR JEANNE SHAHEEN: And so we tend to be willing to challenge the old boy way of doing things in a way that when we're talking about contracts in the military, it's very important because we need more oversight.

CHANG: But while women have advanced in Senate leadership, if you walk around the Capitol, you get the feeling the place is still trying to catch up. There are way more men's bathrooms than women's bathrooms. The men's gym is bigger and nicer than the women's gym, although women can workout in both. Patty Murray remembers when she first arrived at the Senate in the '90s, her husband received a pink envelope in the mail, inviting him to join the Ladies of the Senate Club.

MURRAY: How awkward is that to explain to him that, oh, you know, you don't have to do that. And he said, well, I'll join them but as long as I don't have to, you know, wear a pink pinafore or something.

CHANG: So Murray asked the club if it could at least rename itself and the club actually pushed back, saying that had been the name for more than 100 years. It has since changed its mind and now calls itself the Senate Spouse's Group. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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