Largest number of female incumbents ever are up for re-election.
WASHINGTON - The 2012 elections are likely to mark the new "year of the woman" in the Senate. Ten women -- six of them incumbents -- are presumed Democratic Senate nominees this year, and another is seriously considering a run. The GOP has one female senator, Olympia Snowe of Maine, up for re-election, and one presumed nominee, Linda Lingle of Hawaii, that state's former governor. Other women in both parties are engaged in primary fights.
It is the largest number of female incumbents ever up for re-election in the Senate and would be among the highest number of nominees ever, which could add up to a banner year for women in the deliberative -- and testosterone-infused -- body.
But, with Democrats endangered and the GOP lagging in recruitment of women -- one of their own, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, is retiring -- it is also quite possible that in 2012, women could lose ground in the Senate for the first time in a generation.
"If it is a bad year for Democrats, it could be a bad year for women in the Senate," said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, noting that the majority of female elected officials nationwide are Democrats.
Even as women have made strides in many areas of political life, Congress remains male dominated. Until just a few months ago, there wasn't even a female restroom near the House floor.
The Senate has been a particularly tough electoral mountain for women to climb. In 1922, Rebecca Felton of Georgia served a mere 24 hours to replace a dead member, and from then on, women accounted for just one or two members -- at times none at all -- until 1993. It took the past two decades for the count to reach the current 17.
If all or most of the incumbent women prevail in 2012, and even just a few women of the many recruited win new seats, women would reach an all-time high in the Senate. But the loss of just one female Senate seat with no replacements would cost women ground in the Senate for the first time since 1978, when the number of women in the Senate went from two to one.
This would continue a drift that began last year, when the number of women in the House fell by one, to 72 from 73. (A special election in New York in May brought the number back to 73.)
Women serving in the Senate are not eager see their numbers shrink.
"I think it is very important for legislative bodies to have women," said Hutchison, who recalled when she was among a handful of female lawmakers in the Texas Legislature in the 1970s who crafted legislation to address how rape victims were treated in court.
"It wasn't that the men were against our legislation," she said. "It was just they never thought about the issue."
"Men who have the slightly relevant experience will jump in without a second thought," said Barbara Lee, president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which works to engage women in politics. "Women need to be recruited and asked multiple times by multiple people in order to consider running."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who was appointed to fill the seat of Hillary Clinton and is up for re-election next year, said women often work better across the aisle. Female senators have a quarterly bipartisan dinner, and Gillibrand said she recently found herself sitting next to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, during the fiscal fight seizing Congress.
"She touched my arm and said, 'Kirsten, if you and I were negotiating the budget we would have gotten it done a week ago,'" Gillibrand said.