Women are winning up on Capitol Hill: If Labour's quotas produce more female MPs, the US shows them how to use power. Richard Dunham reports

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WHEN Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress took to the field in the summer of 1993 for their annual baseball game, it was obvious this was not same old grudge match between teams of ageing fraternity boys. For the first time, the boys let three girls participate, too. 'I'm not sure at the very start that they were interested in having women play,' says Congresswoman Maria Cantwell. 'But eventually they accepted me.'

The breakthrough in the previously male-only game parallels a more significant change: women law-makers are becoming important players on Capitol Hill, too. Thanks to a landmark election in 1992 - dubbed 'the Year of the Woman' in American politics - female membership soared from two to seven in the Senate (out of 100) and from 28 to 47 in the House of Representatives (out of 435). The result: crusty male veterans are reluctantly accepting both a sexual revolution in the legislative agenda and a radically different tone in their old 'gentleman's club'.

Not only has the long-ignored Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues seen its family-oriented agenda take centre stage, but women law-makers also have made a difference on a broad range of other issues, from initiating institutional reforms to providing decisive votes on the top issues of the current Congress - reducing the deficit and gun control. 'They've had a big impact,' says the House majority leader, Richard Gephardt. 'They've brought a lot of idealism and a lot of energy to issues.'

Consider the Bill to restrict product- liability suits, which the Senate killed in June. Arguing that the proposal would curb women's rights to sue manufacturers of defective health devices, the Senate's freshman Democratic women cast the key votes to sustain a filibuster that prevented the change being implemented. 'If there hadn't been as many women in the Senate, the issue would have been dead and buried,' crowed the consumer activist Pamela Gilbert.

Although Congress's women - 10 Democrats and 14 Republicans - hold widely divergent views on economic and defence issues, they have become a potent force on social policy because they are generally liberal on those issues and almost unanimously pro-choice on abortion. 'We have some vast differences philosophically, but it is amazing how we come together on issues of importance to women,' says the Republican Olympia Snowe.

Among the women's successes are national criminal-history checks for childcare providers, tougher child-support enforcement laws, an end to the statutory ban on women serving on combat ships, and a requirement that government banking regulators reserve contracts for women-owned businesses.

The dramatic increase in their numbers helped women to gain coveted positions on the powerful legislative appropriations panels, which decide state spending, and they used their new clout to reorder spending priorities - significantly boosting funding for women's health research, including breast and ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, and menopause. Nearly a dozen times, they passed laws increasing the availability of abortion, including a Bill outlawing blockades of abortion clinics by protesters.

In all, 55 Bills backed by the bipartisan women's caucus are expected to become law in this Congress, compared with 39 in the last Congress and 19 in the previous one. 'We'd been at it for five or six years on some of these things,' says Patricia Schroeder, a 22-year House veteran. 'It's wonderful to see things getting to the 'out' tray.'

Women influenced legislation not only through their greater numbers but also by their personal examples. Senator Patty Murray, who ran for office as 'a mom in tennis shoes' and once gave up work to care for her children, helped to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act. Carrie Meek in the House of Representatives, a former domestic worker, won new labour protection for poor women who clean houses. And Representative Lynn Woolsey, a mother who formerly lived on social security, is helping to shape the debate on welfare reform.

But the impact of women has extended far beyond family issues. President Bill Clinton's 1993 plans to reduce the deficit, which were passed by one vote, would have died without the solid support of Democratic women. In the House, 33 of 35 Democratic women stood by their man - even though Mr Clinton's tax rise was unpopular back home; 16 per cent of Democratic men in the House voted no.

Women played an equally pivotal role in banning certain assault weapons. In the House, they not only provided the two-vote margin of victory - 83 per cent of women but only 46 per cent of men supported the curbs - but also worked behind the scenes lobbying their colleagues. In the Senate, the chief sponsor was a woman who became mayor of San Francisco after her predecessor was gunned down.

Some feminists claim that legislative leaders are more willing to pressure women than men to cast politically dangerous votes, but one Democratic strategist says the real reason for the women's solidarity is that, unlike many of their male colleagues, 'they have the courage to make tough decisions'.

Considering that they are relative newcomers to the political battlefields, Capitol Hill women are exceptionally well organised. The women's caucus holds regular bipartisan strategy sessions, and - more unusual - members work out together in the House gym. What is more, new members meet regularly for informal, women-only dinners to compare experiences and get pointers from veteran colleagues.

The women's aggressive style is not always appreciated by male traditionalists. When Representative Karen Shepherd proposed banning lobbyists' gifts to law-makers, she got the silent treatment. 'I went through a week when nobody was talking to me,' she recalls. 'But I stuck it out and the Bill passed.' Another reformist woman convinced the House to bar law-makers from using their congressionally accrued frequent-flier miles for personal holidays. One male aide in the leadership complained: 'They're very, very demanding.'

Despite their efforts, women still comprise only 11 per cent of Congress. And there are occasional slights: one youthful female freshman was asked to leave a members-only lift in the Capitol. But these sexist incidents are becoming rarer. And the women's gains are generally seen as irreversible because they cut across party lines and reflect basic societal shifts.

The chair of the National Women's Political Caucus, Harriett Woods, who deserves much credit for electing both Republican and Democratic women to office, predicts they will soon move into key leadership posts and committee chairmanships. 'No one can ever say again that women should be seen and not heard,' she says.

The author covers the US Congress and American politics for 'BusinessWeek' magazine.