Women make history in new U.S. Senate

The Senate now has a record number 20 women, a full one-fifth of a legislative body that was all-male as recently as the 1970s.
CBS News

(CBS News) WASHINGTON - Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi was the first woman to be elected House speaker in 2007. On Thursday the Senate has made history with a record number of women.

When 13 new U.S. senators took the oath Thursday, five of them were women.

Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, is one of the newest members in the Senate. CBS News

Those five bring the ranks of women senators to 20 -- a full one-fifth of a legislative body that was all-male as recently as the 1970s.

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"The quality of these women is so incredible," said Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, a new senator from North Dakota.

Asked how it will change the dynamic in the Senate, Heitkamp replied: "I'm hoping that it will mean that this body will become more collaborative, more willing to compromise."

The last time five women were elected to the senate was 1992, and it was dubbed "the year of the woman."

Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski was one of them. "It was forbidden for women to wear trousers on the Senate floor," she said. "And when I stepped out in my slacks, you would have thought I was working on the moon."

The new members will become part of a longstanding tradition. All the female senators from both parties get together for lunch once a month to talk about policy and their personal lives.

Deb Fischer of Nebraska is one of the newly-added members of the Senate. CBS News

"That's how you work with people." said Republican Deb Fischer, a new senator from Nebraska. "It doesn't matter if you are in the U.S. Senate, or if you have a job anywhere else. You work on relationships by knowing the people you're with, what their interests are."

It's a big shift from the first women senators, like Hattie Wyatt Caraway and Margaret Chase Smith who had to go it alone.

How long it will take to get to 50 women U.S. senators?

"I think we'll be able to do this in less than 15 years," said Mikulski. "We're accepted, we know how to raise our money, we know how to raise hell. We know how to organize everything from grassroots all the way up."

Mikulski just became chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee, the first woman to hold that position. Over in the House of Representatives, the number of women dipped two years ago. But as of Thursday's swearing-in, it is back up to 78, the all-time high.

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.