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Women Bring New Power, Perspective to Congress
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Women Bring New Power, Perspective to Congress

Politics

Women Bring New Power, Perspective to Congress
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When the new Congress arrives here in Washington in January, record numbers of women will be serving. The House, of course, will likely be lead by a female speaker for the first time in history. There will be at least 70 women in total in the House, along with 16 female senators, including a couple of new ones. And across the country, nine governors will be women. We asked NPR's Senior National Correspondent Linda Wertheimer to examine why women won in this election.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: The most important win is the speakership of the House of Representatives. Next year, Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, will be the first woman to lead the Congress.

Robin Gerber is a historian, the author of Leadership, the Eleanor Roosevelt Way. She says Pelosi's position of power is important for all women.

Ms. ROBIN GERBER (Historian): The power of the mirror is huge. What we see, we believe we can become. And so that's why Nancy Pelosi's sitting in that speaker's chair is huge. For women, that is definitely the most significant thing that happened. Of course, for Democrats, it's hugely significant as well.

WERTHEIMER: Nancy Pelosi, on the night of the election, preparing to step into her new role, spoke about clean government.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): The American people voted to restore integrity and honesty in Washington, D.C., and the Democrats intend to lead the most honest, most open and most ethical Congress in history.

(Soundbite of cheering)

WERTHEIMER: Cleaning the house. The domestic image is almost irresistible. Robin Gerber says that raising a family is a kind of leadership that women like Nancy Pelosi bring to elective office, and men often do not.

Ms. GERBER: She had five children before she came into politics. And that old, you know, four cookies, five children problem is a similar problem that she's going to have to solve as speaker.

WERTHEIMER: But does this change things? Vivian Eveloff directs the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life at the University of Missouri. She says even conservative voters do regard women as an antidote to corruption. That created opportunities this year for women like Missouri Senator-elect Claire McCaskill. Before her win, Missouri women ran five times and lost. Vivian Eveloff.

Ms. VIVIAN EVELOFF (University of Missouri): All of those efforts to break down that door, in fact, perhaps, loosened it up enough that Claire McCaskill was ultimately able to break it down and get through. Maybe it does, in a state like Missouri, take a lot of efforts before you can finally achieve this goal.

WERTHEIMER: Minnesota has never had a woman in the Senate. Democrat Amy Klobuchar was elected Tuesday. She remembers the first woman to serve in the House from her state, Coya Knudson, whose husband famously wrote her, Coya, come home.

Senator-Elect AMY KLOBUCHAR (Democrat, Minnesota): And they gave it to the newspaper, and that was the end of her. My husband pledged he would never write such a letter.

WERTHEIMER: Klobuchar brings another quality voters say they admire, especially now. Voters believe that women get things done. Klobuchar is Hennepin County prosecutor.

Senator-Elect KLOBUCHAR: They know me as a prosecutor for the biggest county in Minnesota, as the elected prosecutor. And they knew that I got results and that I focused on results a lot in my job. We had 10 debates, and what happened was, the people who hadn't voted for women before, were able to see that I could be tough, I could take this guy on, and I was going to be looking out for them.

WERTHEIMER: When Klobuchar was first elected prosecutor, she appointed two women deputies.

Senator-Elect KLOBUCHAR: I remember I got them together for the first time for lunch. I thought, here's this historic moment, I'm the first woman county attorney with my two women deputies. And the waiter came over to the table, and he said, how are you three little gals doing? Are you taking a break from work? And I thought, this is going to be a lot harder than I thought.

WERTHEIMER: Klobuchar says the women in the Senate helped with her campaign; that she and Claire McCaskill strategized and raised money together -cooperation that voters - especially women voters - recognize in women candidates. So with Pelosi as speaker, promising new civility, and new women in Congress - I asked Vivian Eveloff if this is the year of the women.

Ms. EVELOFF: Oh, I so don't like that expression. I think every year ought to be the year of the woman until we get a Congress and we get legislators and we get state houses that reflect the diversity of this country. We made a little progress this year, but we certainly have a long way to go.

WERTHEIMER: 2006 was incremental, Eveloff says. Robin Gerber says, wait for the year of the woman running for president. Maybe as soon as 2008?

Linda Wertheimer, NPR News, Washington.

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