Women to occupy record number of Senate seats

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Women will occupy a record number of U.S. Senate seats -- one in five -- in January, following victories Tuesday.

Five women won first terms in the Senate -- in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Nebraska and North Dakota. The results mean that when the new Congress convenes in January, 20 of its 100 members will be women.

Currently, 17 women, which had been the record, serve in the chamber. Two of them, Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, are retiring.

All but one of the women newly elected in Tuesday's election are Democrats. They probably benefited from the momentum of President Barack Obama's campaign and from Senate Democrats' painting Republicans as waging a "war against women" that would limit reproductive rights, said Barbara Lee, founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which seeks to boost women's representation in elective office.

The increased numbers of women in both parties in Congress and governorships also breeds more success, she said. "The more women hold office, the more the barriers dissipate," Lee said.

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All of the women senators-elect won seats held by men. In Nebraska, Republican Deb Fischer defeated Democrat Bob Kerrey, a former two-term senator from the state, for an open seat. In Massachusetts, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard University professor whose attacks on Wall Street fueled her campaign, won her race against the Republican incumbent, Sen. Scott Brown.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, claimed an open Senate seat in Wisconsin over Republican Tommy Thompson, who previously served 14 years as governor and was former U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. Like Warren, Baldwin is the first woman to represent her state in the U.S. Senate. Baldwin will also be the chamber's first openly gay member. In Hawaii, Rep. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat, defeated former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle for an open seat.

In North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, defeated Republican Rep. Rick Berg for an open seat.

In state legislatures that provide a pipeline to higher office, gains have been slower. Female representation in state legislative seats across the nation stands at 24 percent, just 3 percentage points higher than two decades ago, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

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