When Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum (D) took her seat in the House of Representatives in 2001, only 13.6 percent of members of Congress were women. Though that number has grown in the 21 years since, Congress has a long way to go before achieving gender equity in its chambers.

“When I got here, (Minnesota) was an all male delegation, with a lot of members who have been here for a long time,” McCollum said. “They had an opportunity to embrace me or shut us out, and I have to say that Congressman (James) Oberstar and Congressman (Martin) Sabo and their chiefs of staff did everything humanly possible to make sure I was up and running. But there were also some women in Congress that reached out and were very helpful.” 

Those women, McCollum said, included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro and California Rep. Ellen Tauscher, who has since passed away. 

Now, the House of Representatives is made up of 28 percent women, while the Senate is 24 percent female. Although these numbers remain far below the female share of the overall U.S. population, they still represent a 50 percent increase from the 96 total women who were serving in the 112th Congress a decade ago. In Minnesota, female representation is even greater; 67 percent of the state’s federal delegation are women, including two female senators. Only three other states currently have two female senators — New Hampshire, Nevada and Washington.

The women in Minnesota’s federal delegation spoke to MinnPost about their experience being part of a majority-female delegation, from teaming up on pushing bills through Congress to a sense of camaraderie even across the aisle.

Breaking through the bromances

Academic studies have shown that in office settings, men often don’t register the existence of gender discrimination at the same level as women, and the trend of men making up most senior leadership positions in many companies tends to exacerbate that perception gap. Though gender disparities in Congress have not been studied as much as those in office settings, Minnesota’s female representatives and senators’ anecdotes lined up with those findings.

“Nearly every day, there’s a kind of bromance that goes on amongst my (male) colleagues,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D), who has served in Congress since 2018. “And in a way, I don’t begrudge them. It’s great that they have a chance to build those relationships, but it’s sometimes hard to figure out how to break into that when you’re a woman.”

McCollum said although having more women in Congress now is great, she still finds herself being the only woman in the room, especially in her work as the chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. McCollum said she specifically sought out that committee because she wanted to work on “some of the terrible things that were happening to women in the military,” especially the ongoing sexual assault and harassment issues that remain prevalent in the military. Representation matters, and McCollum said her presence made a difference to female members of the military especially.

“The last time I was at the Pentagon, I walked out (of a meeting) and some of the leadership there, they were just smiling at me,” McCollum said. “And I realized that you don’t think of yourself as being a groundbreaker or person changing things. But as I was leaving, one of them said, ‘We are so excited to have you here.’ That made me realize we still have a ways to go.”

In stark contrast to this recognition, though, is another experience McCollum has walking through the halls of the Capitol (although less and less as her hair has gone gray, she joked).

“I still get asked to see my staff ID once in a while,” said the congresswoman, even after 21 years of service, talking of when security guards assume that because she’s a woman she wouldn’t be a member of Congress.

Second District Rep. Angie Craig (D) said when she was running for the seat people came to her with a sort of “little lady, what do you think you’re doing running for Congress” attitude, but she didn’t let that stop her.

“When I came to Congress in 2018, it was the largest number of women that had ever served in the House,” Craig said. “At the same time, I’m the first woman to ever in the history of Minnesota represent the Second District and it’s really hard to fathom that. How can I be the first in my district ever?”

Seventh District Rep. Michelle Fischbach (R), who was elected to Congress in 2020 and, like Craig, is the first woman to represent her district, said she’s thankful to have not experienced the same kind of gender discrimination as some of her colleagues.

“I came in with 18 new Republican women, strong women, and I think that leadership sees the value of their experience and their strength, and it’s certainly been respectful,” Fischbach said.

Women (sometimes) find it easier to work together across the aisle

As the only female Republican member of Minnesota’s delegation, Fischbach said she’s been able to reach across party lines to collaborate with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) on a bill recognizing Coya Knutson, the first woman to represent Minnesota in Congress. 

Craig said she’s also generally felt more able to collaborate with Republicans if they’re women (though that’s not to say she hasn’t worked with men across the aisle — Craig has spent a lot of time working with Peter Meijer, a Republican from Michigan, for example).

“I hate to sort of gender something by saying women are more this or more that, but generally, even if we have policy differences, I think there is that mutual respect of, it’s pretty cool to be in a delegation that has a majority of women in it,” Craig said.

McCollum said she’s been able to find common ground with many women across the aisle, especially on policy surrounding child care.

“There are things that women just understand a little better, and part of that is child care,” McCollum said. “No offense to my great brothers that I served with, but women understand child care. They understand taking care of parents as they age, and they understand workforce inequality. You know, I’ll just speak for myself on this one, but I know what it was like in the private sector to train in a man who then made more money than me. And so we’ve lived these experiences, and we have different views as women.”

In the Senate, things are a little different. There are currently only 24 female senators; 16 Democrats and eight Republicans. In June of last year, Vice President Kamala Harris revived an old tradition of holding a private dinner for all of the women in the Senate.

“I think among women in the Senate, there is a camaraderie because we have that shared experience of getting things done,” Smith said. “I’m thinking of Senator Joni Ernst (R), who, you know, we’re very far apart on many issues, but we find places to work together on world development and renewable energy … She’s been a very strong voice on violence against women and equity for women in the military, and I really respect her for that. (Women in the Senate) find ways to work across party lines and as women, we have a special connection as well.”

Although across-the-aisle camaraderie among women in the Senate has been fairly strong, there are some policy differences that are too steep to overcome. Smith said there are some women in the Senate who voted against certifying the 2020 election results. Especially after the insurrection at the Capitol, she has a hard time finding common ground with them.

“That was a real make or break moment for me … There’s a point where it’s very difficult to look beyond that kind of fundamental difference in perspective,” Smith said.

On to the midterms: Encouraging more women to run for office

Smith said one of the best parts of Minnesota’s majority-women delegation has been the work she’s been able to get done with her female colleagues. She and Klobuchar work closely together on many issues, from basic constituent issues to prescription drug policy. She and Craig have worked a lot together around workforce and career and technical training, while she and McCollum  have collaborated on tribal issues. Smith also highlighted the work she’s done with Fifth District Rep. Ilhan Omar (D) on free school lunches and advancing child care funding.

“We see a problem and try to figure out how to solve it, and there are real places where we’ve come together. And that is, I think, a hallmark of a lot of women leaders who tend to be problem solvers and relationship builders,” Smith said. “This is kind of the secret superpower of a lot of woman leaders. Women are good at building those connections and those networks, and that’s coalition building.”

All of the Minnesota female leaders interviewed shared one thing in common: They want more women in Congress and are hoping to see that come to fruition in this year’s midterm elections.

“We need great strong women, and there are so many women that have so much to offer out there,” Fischbach said. “I would suggest that any woman run for whatever it may be, from top to bottom.”

McCollum, who has been a trailblazer for women in Congress for the past two decades, said that she always encourages women to run for office.

“I would tell (women thinking about running) that when you walk into the Capitol and pick up your election certificate and you get your voting card, you’re equal to anybody else. Your vote is the same as anybody else’s,” McCollum said. “And don’t think any differently of yourself, and no one will ever think that they can take advantage or talk down to you because of your gender.”