Gillibrand Says More Women in Congress Would Mean More Progress

The U.S. Congress would be working on consensus-building and not be crippled by gridlock if there were more women in both houses, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said.

“If we had 51 percent women in Congress, we wouldn’t have wasted the last four years debating contraception” and would have focused on the economy instead, the New York Democrat said at the fifth annual Women in the World conference in New York, where she appeared on a panel with Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine.

“We’d be getting things done,” Gillibrand, 47, said. “If you want to fix Washington, elect more women.”

Collins, elected in 1996, said women are “much more collaborative” than men and that they make a special effort to operate that way in the Senate. She cited the dinners female senators regularly share, a tradition started by Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and one that forges “bonds of trust between us that make it easier for us to collaborate.”

“That makes a difference,” Collins, 61, said. “If you have personal relationships, it’s easier to work together.”

She and Gillibrand are two of a record 20 women in the Senate. In the House, 79 members are women, representing 31 states. Ten years ago, 74 women served in the House and Senate, and 50 years ago there were 14, according to data from the Center for American Women and Politics.

‘Sticky Floor’

Collins said that when she encourages women to run for office, they often say, “I’m just not ready,” she said, a declaration she never hears from men.

“The best story I’ve heard about this was that if a woman’s running for public office she feels she has to have a PhD in international economics to talk about trade policy -- a man just feels he needs to drive a Honda.”

Gillibrand said she was optimistic that women would heed “the call to action” to get more of them into politics. “When women are told they’re needed and they can do it,” she said, “they respond.”

Appointed in January 2009 to fill the seat vacated by Hillary Clinton when she became secretary of state, Gillibrand was elected in 2010 to complete the term and won the race for the seat in 2012.

Collins was the 15th woman elected to the Senate. She was one of nine Republicans who voted with Democrats to approve first bipartisan budget produced by a divided Congress in 27 years, resolving spending issues that had helped spur a 16-day partial government shutdown in October.

‘Middle Ground’

She and Gillibrand are working to increase the federal minimum wage, which Gillibrand called a women’s issue. The AFL-CIO held a media briefing yesterday to highlight how raising the federal wage floor would help working women. About two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, according to the union.

“I think there’s a middle ground here we can strike,” Collins said.

The Senate later this month could begin considering a measure to raise the minimum to $10.10 an hour, which Democrats and advocacy groups contend would disproportionately aid women.

“In this country, we have always rewarded work,” Gillibrand said. “For too many women, that’s not true anymore because they’re stuck not with some glass ceiling but a sticky floor.” And if they can’t move up from low-wage jobs, “they’ll never get ahead.”

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