A record 20 women will serve in U.S. Senate

The election on Tuesday of five new women to the U.S. Senate, four of them Democrats, will bring to 20 the number of “Gentle ladies” in Congress’ upper chamber.

With the retirements of Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Olympia Snowe, the steady increase in numbers of Senate women was expected to stop in 2012.  Not so, and the women elected in campaign 2012 are a diverse lot in background and ideology.

Sen.-elect Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is a high-profile Harvard Law professor and architect of the Wall Street reform package and new consumer agency passed by Congress in 2010.  Sen.-elect Deb Fischer, R-Nebraska, is a rural state legislator from western Nebraska who beat two better financed opponents in the GOP primary and easily defeated former Sen. (and Gov.) Bob Kerrey in the general election.

Sen.-elect Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, is the first openly gay woman to serve in the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.”  Sen.-elect Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, held the annual Net Roots National conference rap earlier this year with the tale of her mother escaping an abusive marriage in Japan and making a new life for herself and offspring in Hawaii.

The last Senate seat decided on Tuesday was North Dakota.  Considered a sure Republican pickup, it was held for the Democrats by former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, who won despite the fact that Mitt Romney was piling up nearly 60 percent of the state’s vote.

Voters reelected Sens. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, considered a goner in the summer, won a sweeping victory after her Republican challenger Todd Akin tried to argue that women’s bodies can shut down pregnancy when they become victims of forcible rape.  Mitt Romney was handily winning in Missouri.

Just over a quarter-century ago, in 1986, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, became the first woman elected to the Senate whose spouse had not served before her in Congress.  The “year of the women,” 1992, brought Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to the Senate, where they continue to serve.

It was Murray, reluctantly taking the job of Senate Democratic Campaign Committee chair, who recruited several of Tuesday’s winners.

With Snowe’s retirement in Maine, Washington, California and New Hampshire are the three states  in which women hold both U.S. Senate seats.  With the election of two Democratic women to the U.S. House of Representatives, New Hampshire became the first state to have an all-women congressional delegation.