Caption:

Seizing the initiative: Senator Susan Collins.

For six decades after the first woman was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1931, there were never more than one or two women at a time in the upper chamber.

In 1991, the number doubled—to four.  Today, though, women fill a record 20 of the 100 seats in the Senate—and 18 of those 20 women sit on the most powerful committees in the chamber.

How are they making a difference?

Eight days into the government shutdown, Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, frustrated by her male colleagues’ intransigence, seized the initiative to create a compromise—to find a way out of the impasse created by the fiercely partisan dispute over the debt ceiling and the government shutdown. Collins put together a simple plan to end the standoff that she thought both parties could swallow.

Hearing Collins speak, Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski quickly rose in support. “Let’s get the job done,” she said. Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski agreed. “We need to be pragmatic. This is not going to be a Republican solution or a Democratic solution. This is going to be a solution that is good for the country,” she said. Another Republican senator, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, joined Murkowsi in defying their caucus. Three Democrats, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, joined the Republican women.

They seemed to be far more sensitive than their male colleagues were to the suffering of people caught in the shutdown. “I probably will have retribution in my state,” said Murkowski. “That’s fine. That doesn’t bother me at all. If there is backlash, hey, that’s what goes on in D.C., but in the meantime there is a government that is shut down. There are people who are really hurting.”

A few of the male senators acknowledge that their female colleagues were responsible for ending the stalemate. “The women are taking over,” said Arizona Republican Senator John McCain. But the House killed the bill that the women created. Although the bill that finally ended the shutdown was largely based on the women’s work, the women senators were eclipsed by the two party leaders in the bipartisan group, both of them men.

As the number of women in the Senate has gradually increased since 1991, the clout of the women’s caucus has grown disproportionately. Women are acquiring seniority and chairing committees. They are effecting changes in policy and ensuring that the issues they care about most are prominent in the congressional agenda. They have persuaded their male colleagues that “women’s issues” affect everybody; that sexual assault in the military is a real problem, and not just for women; that health, education, child care, abortion, and pay equity affect the entire family.

Bidding farewell to an 18-year career in the Senate, Maine Republican Olympia Snowe recalled “a time in America when child-support enforcement was viewed as strictly a woman’s problem, a time when pensions were canceled without a spouse’s approval, a time when family and medical leave wasn’t the law of the land, and a time when, incredibly, women were systematically excluded from clinical medical trials at the National Institutes of Health—trials that made the difference between life and death.” Snowe and her women colleagues are responsible for changing the male mindset that ignored all that.

Why are women making a difference? They say they collaborate more easily than men do because they are less driven by ego, are less partisan, seek ways to avoid confrontation and find common ground. They do not criticize each other in public. Perhaps most important, they insert a different perspective into the conversation:

“One of the things we do a bit better is listen,” said North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp.  “It is about getting people in a room with different life experiences who will look at things a little differently because they’re moms, because they’re daughters who’ve been taking care of senior moms, because they have a different life experience than a lot of senior guys in the room.”

New Yorker blogger Amy Davidson doesn’t agree that collaboration is the women’s main strength.“Those are differences that can prove useful,” she writes. “Perhaps men really believe, when they listen to a woman, that they are collaborating. It may be self-protective, or just tactically wise, for women themselves to act as though their only role was bringing everyone together; it can be more comfortable for men to think so. But enough of that. Can we stop talking as though women’s only strength is as facilitators? There are other words for what they are: one of them is leaders.”

The women on the Armed Services Committee (five Democrats and two Republicans) are writing a passel of bills that are forcing men to grapple with sexual assault in the military, an issue that has been largely ignored over the years.  New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who serves on the committee, sums up the gender difference: “The men asked all the questions about ships, hardware, that sort of thing,” she said.

 “We asked why divorce and suicide rates were so high.”

The women senators believe they represent all women, even those outside the U.S. Thirteen of them introduced an amendment into the immigration bill that would make it easier for women to gain admittance. All immigrants would have to meet requirements for special skills and education, but in many countries, women don’t have access to education. Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono pressed for the amendment because the bill in its current form “essentially cements unfairness against women into U.S. immigration law.”

In 2010, when Obamacare was being marked up by the Finance Committee, four women (three Democrats—Debbie Stabenow, Michigan; Maria Cantwell, Washington; Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas— and one Republican, Olympia Snowe, Maine) were on the committee. “The four of us were significant over and over again,” said Stabenow. The women argued for the inclusion of school-based health clinics and mental-health care as well as maternity care. The need for the latter was hotly disputed.

“I don’t need maternity care,” objected Arizona Republican Jon Kyl.

Stabenow retorted, “Your mom probably did.”

Despite their legislative successes, women senators still have to deal with Neanderthals. They have learned to be tough. Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar recalls waiting for an elevator with another senator. He turned to her and brusquely announced that the elevator was for senators only. Klobuchar’s aide quickly informed him that Klobuchar was indeed also a senator. The man was shocked. Smiling sweetly, Klobuchar countered, “And who are you?”

Such encounters are not uncommon. Just about all the women have been denied admittance to rooms, clubs, caucuses, and huddles. They’ve been patronized, hit on, and even scolded for abandoning their children. But not for much longer. Women’s access to power is accelerating. When the number of women in the Senate and the House hits the sweet spot where they equal or surpass the number of men, who can tell what will happen? Will they continue to wield soft power or become more heavy-handed against the opposition? That will be one of the most interesting experiments in human history.