If you are looking for research paper topics in your women’s studies or American history classes, it’s worth noting that two women made history in their senate races in the 2016 election. Kamala Harris (D) of California became the first South Asian-American to serve in the Senate (as well as the second black woman to be a senator) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D) of Nevada became the first Latina to secure a Senate seat.
There have been women in the senate since shortly after the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, and looking at the history of how those women have served, as well as the first woman to be a senator and first woman elected, provides a historical context for the women who serve today.
Harris and Masto in the 2016 election
The 2016 election broke the current record of women in the U. S. Senate. The previous record, held by the (current) 114th Congress was 20 female senators. Beginning when the 115th Congress is sworn in, there will be 21. Among those women are not only Harris and Masto, but Tammy Duckworth (D, Illinois), the first Thailand-born senator, whose American father descends from veterans of the American Revolution.
Harris already had a number of “firsts” under her belt. As Bill Chappell reported for NPR, as hosted in “Women Record Several ‘Firsts’ With Wins In U.S. Senate, Elsewhere” on the Oregon Public Broadcasting Website, November 9, 2016, “she was already California’s first woman, African-American, and South Asian-American to be attorney general.” She won her seat over fellow Democrat Rep. Loretta Sanchez to replace outgoing Sen. Barbara Boxer (D). Harris surged ahead in the polls earlier in the race, making her win unsurprising. Masto’s race was much tighter; she won 49 percent of the vote against Republican Joe Heck, who received 44 percent. She will be replacing outgoing Senate Minority Leader Larry Reid (D).
History’s U. S. Senators
The first woman to serve in the U. S. Senate was Rebecca Latimer Felton (D-GA), who was appointed to serve in the Senate for a single day in 1922, two years after women won the right to vote. That same year, Edna Mae Nolan (R-CA) was elected to the House of Representatives, becoming “the first widow to be elected to replace her husband in the House,” according to Lisa Solowiej and Thomas L. Brunell in their September 2003 Political Research Quarterly article “The Entrance of Women to the U.S. Congress: The Widow Effect.” Likewise, the first elected woman Senator was widow Hattie Caraway (D-AK), who replaced her husband in 1931 by appointment and won her race in 1932. Caraway continued to serve in the senate for fourteen years, through several elections—four years longer than her husband had held the seat.
Solowiej and Brunell posited that widows have held an advantage in breaking through the gender-barriers of the U.S. Senate. Sometimes, this was because it was expected they would not serve long; the party scrambling to find a candidate to replace a senator who had died in office would be able to use the widow as a placeholder until they found a more suitable candidate. However, senators like Caraway show that women might have broken through the barrier due to their widowhood, but come into their own after being elected.
The Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics offered an infographic, “Women in the U.S. Senate 2016,” with plenty of research paper topic ideas about women in the U.S. Senate, including these other firsts:
- Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) was the first woman to be elected to the Senate without previously having been appointed in 1948.
- Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) was the first woman of color to be elected to the Senate in 1992.
- Mazie Hirono (D-HI) was the first woman of Asian/Pacific Islander descent (and the second woman of color) to be elected to the Senate in 2012.
What other ideas would make interesting research paper topics about women in the U. S. Senate? Let us know in the comments.