They assumed I was a spouse

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Like many senators, Linda Toddy Puller first was elected to the House of Delegates. She recalled when the delegates and their spouses were taking a Capitol tour. It was 1992, and people assumed Puller was a delegates wife, not a legislator.

I said, No, no Im right where I need to be, and they just assumed I was a spouse and not a member, said Puller, a Mount Vernon Democrat who joined the Senate in 2000. The place has gotten better as far as relationships between men and women. It was a lot more sexist when I first came here.

Sen. Yvonne B. Miller (D-Norfolk) also started in the House, in 1984. She won a Senate seat in 1987 and is the longest-serving woman in the Senate. She was the first African-American woman and one of the first women elected to the Virginia Senate. The first female senator was Republican Eva F. Scott, in 1980.

As the oldest of 13 children, Miller said, she was not afraid to run or to serve in a predominately male workplace.

I really became interested in politics and worked very hard to get other people elected, she said. Part of that volunteering helped me to understand that I was at least as smart as some of the people I worked for and a whole lot smarter than some of the others.

Jill Holtzman Vogel, a lawyer who was elected to the Senate last fall, also was accustomed to working in a mostly male environment.

When you start this process, you have no idea what to expect, and so you are genuinely nervous about being a candidate, said Vogel (R-Winchester). But once I got involved, I wasnt nervous at all.

Vogel said she finds humor in the fact that she is the only female Republican in the Senate.

There was some trepidation actually coming to the General Assembly, because you have no idea what to expect, and it is a male-dominated arena, she said.

Although there has been progress, women senators say, it hasnt always been easy for them to break into a male workplace.

Patricia Ticer, a Democrat from Alexandria, has served in the Senate since 1996. She said opinions concerning women as legislators have changed in Virginia over the years.

The old-boy network has dissipated quite a bit, so I dont feel the same problem with being a woman now, Ticer said. It was a little more pronounced when I first came down here, but you just have to do everything a little bit harder and a little bit better.

Even as the nation and the world focus on a rise of strong female figures in government, the women in the Virginia Senate appear to be happy where they are: None expressed an immediate desire to run for higher office.

Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Reston) began working at the General Assembly as a legislative aide. She ran for the Senate in 1991, saying she thought she could do as good a job as anybody else down here. So, why not run?

Seventeen years later, Howell said she is content to remain a senator.

I made that decision a decade ago now Im really happy in the Senate. Now, Im a committee chair, said Howell, who heads the Privileges and Elections Committee. I have a lot on my plate a lot of responsibility.

Although seven of Virginias eight female senators are Democrats, they have different opinions of former presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
According to Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), Clinton set a precedent for other women by running for higher office as a credible and serious presidential candidate.

No woman who is active in the political arena or any other arena has not benefited from the women that have come before us, Whipple said before Clinton dropped out. Theres absolutely an element of women having paved the path, but shes really breaking new ground, and to me its very exciting to have a woman running for president.

Miller said it was inevitable that a woman would run for president. She said Clinton is the next logical step to run for the presidency of the United States, and I wish her well in pursuit of that office.

Virginias women senators said they do not serve female interests only.
I have a number of topics Im interested in, and I dont think that they are specifically womens issues theyre people issues; theyre family issues, Whipple said.

Howell said she considers everything senators deal with as womens issues. Any issue thats important, that touches peoples lives, is a womens issue. Thats almost everything we deal with down here, she said.

Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton) said she ran for office in 2003 because she wanted to be a part of the decision-making process rather than an observer.

If the voices of the constituents that I ultimately represent are primarily African-American women, then the only way that voice can be heard is if were at the table, Locke said.

She thinks the Senate for the most part has offered equal opportunities especially since January, when Democrats took control of the chamber from Republicans.

It happened with the Senate being taken over by Democrats. Just last year, all 11 chairs were headed by white men. Now you have chairmanships with seven women, four African-Americans and so, theres a broader spectrum of leadership, said Locke, who heads the Senate General Laws and Technology Committee.

But Whipple noted that in holding eight of the Senates 40 seats, women have a long way to go to reach parity.

I think that women in the Senate are doing a great job, Whipple said. You still have to bear in mind, were only 20 percent of members of the Senate and over 51 percent of the population. So there certainly isnt equal representation.

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