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Women Changing the Face of Senate Armed Services Panel

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Gillibrand is one of three women at the helm of an Armed Services subcommittee.

“This is the first real, visible thing that the Senate has done on this issue in a long, long time, and we’re hoping that this moves the conversation forward,” Jacob said of Wednesday’s hearing, where SWAN’s executive director will testify.

Jacob noted that the most important shift, however, might come from outside Gillibrand’s Personnel Subcommittee, where women have been more vocal, and on the other subcommittees that long have been considered more prestigious.

“Traditionally, in the past, the Personnel subcommittees are the subcommittees that have been viewed as dealing with these ‘soft’ issues — there’s a perception among the larger committee that it’s not really a hard, substantive committee, [whereas] the Readiness and Emerging Threats subcommittees are seen as the ‘nuts-and-bolts, bullets-and-beans and bad guys’ panels,” Jacob said. “These women are not being used as window dressing. They are dealing with these really hard, very strategic, nuts-and-bolts national defense issues also.”

Shaheen, the Readiness panel chairwoman, said she believes women taking key roles does lead to new questioning of old policy because, like with any issue in Congress, members bring their own experience to the table.

The New Hampshire Democrat said she plans to focus on energy policy and how effective energy use can be a part of the military’s overall readiness policy.

“I don’t know to what extent that’s been raised,” Shaheen said. “We all bring to whatever we’re doing our own experiences, and as women, those experiences are usually different than men’s. Witness what [Sen.] Claire McCaskill has had to say about having been a prosecutor and the issue of sexual assault, so I do think there is a difference.”

Indeed, McCaskill and Shaheen were among the female senators who lashed out at military leaders last week, when news broke about a decision by an Air Force general to overturn a jury’s guilty verdict against a military pilot accused of rape. That issue is almost certain to surface in Gillibrand’s Wednesday hearing.

Fifteen percent of people in the military are women, and that number will grow to 20 percent within the next three to four years, Jacob said.

Gillibrand sees a direct connection between the decision to allow women in combat and future incidents of sexual violence.

“One question that has been raised is, will that help alleviate the number of sexual assaults by having women in combat, so there would be less overall discrimination in the armed services,” Gillibrand said. “That’s a question we don’t know the answer to, but it’s an interesting question, and hopefully, as women continue to elevate themselves in terms of rank and authority and supervising capacity, there will be less and less tolerance for this kind of behavior.”

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he believed women taking elevated roles in his committee “intensifies an awareness that’s been growing about the role of women in the military.”

And that’s certainly a responsibility taken seriously by Senate women, who are boosted this year by a historic class of 20 members — seven of whom sit on Armed Services.

As Shaheen said, there are “not many shrinking violets.”

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