A Former Congressional Reporter Explains Her Relationship With the Women of the Senate

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Senator Susan Collins of Maine after the Senate passed a continuing resolution to stave off a government shutdown in January. Behind her are Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Credit Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

Most people believe that journalists have inherent biases — conscious or unconscious. We absolutely do. But our biases generally are not the type of which we are so often accused.

Some biases are sort of universal: Journalists tend to be partial to conflict, tension, complications — in relationships, workplaces, government — and of course to scoops, even those that are interesting to almost no one but themselves.

Some biases are selective: Individual reporters may have an inherent interest in sources who are funny, who are good skiers, who favor their hometown sports team or remind them of their wives.

These biases are superficial and generally fleeting. They spark a certain symbiotic relationship that almost never protects said source from a tough story.

On Capitol Hill, where I spent most of my Washington reporting career, my bias was toward female senators. It was not that I liked all of them personally more than I liked the men; many of the men were as charming as the most lovely women, and not all the women were so personable.

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Indeed one female senator once glared at me and called me awkward when I approached her in the hall for an interview, which made me feel levels of humiliation and rage that I had never felt after talking to a rude male senator.

Was this my bias working in another way? I think so. How dare a woman who was my own age and a mother of children the same age as mine speak to me that way? Were we not in some sense peers?

No, in fact, we were not. Roughly half of all journalists these days are women. But female senators are like blue grosbeaks — not exactly rare birds but unusual enough to engender interest. My bias was toward their exalted perch.

A grand total of 52 women have served as United States senators. With the recent appointment of Cindy Hyde-Smith, the first female senator from Mississippi, the body is at an all-time high with a mere 23 women — not even 25 percent of the Senate as a whole.

Historically, women have been harder to persuade to run for office than their male peers, and more loath to ask donors for money. (That’s changing this year, with a historic number of women running.)

Many women have been reluctant, I suspect, because of the questions they face about how they will raise their children while in a job that keeps them away from home. Male candidates do not face such questions.

Once in the Senate, women tend to stick with their party — as do men — but they have at times come together as a bloc on bills that the majority of their male peers are rejecting, or come together to clean up partisan messes. And every month, they have a formal bipartisan dinner together that has become one of the most intriguing institutional traditions in the Senate.

Female senators are often accused of being tough on staff. This is largely a matter of sexism. But I suspect something else is also at work. Getting to this level of the legislative branch is so grueling for women that by the time they arrive they might very well expect those around them to have sacrificed, too.

I often wonder what motivates these women — especially Republicans, whose female ranks are thinner on the Hill — to set their sights on the Senate rather than, say, governors’ mansions, and what they take from the experience.

On Sunday in New York, I will get to ask four of them: Susan Collins, Republican of Maine; Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota; Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa; and Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota.

I expect to be surprised by this group of extraordinary women, whose paths were paved by widows of senators long ago who endured comments about their stockings long before their bills made history.

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