If and when a nominee to fill Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat ever gets a hearing on Capitol Hill, he or she will sit before a panel 20 senators, 18 men and two women.
The two women, California’s Diane Feinstein and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, are both Democrats. In fact, here’s a surprising congressional factoid: the Judiciary Committee is the only Senate committee on which a Republican woman has never served.
This is particularly striking for the Judiciary Committee, whose 1991 hearings to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court so outraged a generation of women that literally hundreds of women ran for office and dozens were elected to Congress in 1992, making it the Year of the Woman. “When I was elected in 1992, Joe Biden was then chairman of the committee and asked if I would be willing to be the first woman to serve,” Feinstein told TIME. “This was the year after Anita Hill testified during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, and it was clear the committee could benefit from a woman’s perspective. I said yes, and [Illinois Democratic] Senator Carol Mosley Braun joined soon after. It has been an honor to serve on the committee for the past 23 years and provide my take on issues ranging from gun safety to women’s health to human trafficking.”
So why hasn’t a Republican woman, many who were equally as inspired by Anita Hill as Democrats to run for Congress, chosen to serve on this committee? The answer is two fold. First, two of the six Republican female senators are pro-choice—or at least not pro-life enough to want to be standard bearer for repealing Roe v. Wade, which is essentially the litmus test of every nominee confirmed by the committee. So that leaves the handful of women who are solidly pro-life: in this Congress Iowa’s Joni Ernst, New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito and Deb Fischer of Nebraska.
“Committee assignments start with the requests of members,” says Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “Our newly elected female Senators, for example, each got the committees they requested.”
Ayotte and Ernst are both more interested in military and foreign policy issues and Fischer has a background in ranching and transportation. Capito is on the energy and environment committees since West Virginia’s a big mining state. While pro-life none of the four campaigned much on the issue.
But then there’s the second aspect of the committee: when not confirming judges the committee tends to take on the most hyper-partisan issues of the day. It’s rarely a committee that passes tangible legislation that can impact voters back home like, say, the Agriculture Committee for a senator from a farming state or the Armed Services Committee for someone from a state with a lot of military installments.
The Judiciary Committee tends to be the frontline of partisan warfare over not just abortion but all manner of social issues from stem cell research to discrimination laws. The folks on the committee are generally partisan firebrands on both sides. And, well, the women in the Senate, while certainly ideological, tend to be more inclined to deal making than bomb throwing.