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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 January 2007, 12:43 GMT
Women power comes to Capitol Hill
By James Westhead
BBC News, Washington

The United States Congress is about to break a new record. On 4 January it will swear in the largest number of women ever to serve as lawmakers in the country.

Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi has vowed to clean up the House
In addition a woman will become the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Now commentators are wondering whether 2007 could be the year of the woman in politics.

The surge in female representation came in the mid-term Congressional election in November. It was a historic victory for the Democrats - and also for women.

There were more than 140 female candidates and an unprecedented number of women elected, bringing the total to 86. Although Capitol Hill remains overwhelmingly male, the balance will shift in January by over one percentage point to 16.5% female.

That may not sound terribly significant on its own, except for the impact of one of those women - Nancy Pelosi.

The California Democrat will take up the most powerful job in the House of Representatives. She will be the first leader of the House to be addressed as "Madam Speaker" .

Senate: 16 out of 100
House: 70 out of 435*
Governorships: 9 out of 50
*One candidate is legally challenging her opponent's win - if she wins there would be 71 women

The post puts her "two heartbeats from the presidency", as under the American constitution she will be next in line to the White House after Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Ms Pelosi - a 66-year-old mother of five and grandmother of another five - has described the achievement as "breaking the marble ceiling" of the political world.

She, and other women politicians, say it is similar to the "glass ceiling" in the business world, only harder - and Ms Pelosi says she has the bruises to show for it.

National trend

How the new female ascendancy will change politics is less clear.

A group of Republican senators
Men still outnumber women in both houses of Congress
Ms Pelosi has vowed to restore civility and ethics in government, saying: "It takes a woman to clean house" - a reference to the corruption seen as widespread in Congress.

She has also promised to work in a more bipartisan, co-operative way, contrasting her approach to the past decade that Congress has been under Republican - and male - control.

It is also possible that more issues of importance to women will get more attention.

So, for instance, Ms Pelosi has said that in her first 100 hours as Speaker she will push for an increase in the minimum wage - a move that will have major repercussions for women who represent the majority of low-paid workers.

The trend towards women is evident not only in Washington.

Across the country, a record 2,433 women ran for state office and the number of female state governors are up to a high of nine.

Real test

The strides made by women in Congress and state government are no accident. Numerous programmes, run by both partisan and non-partisan organisations have sought to increase their numbers.

Hillary Clinton
Can Hillary Clinton break the ultimate marble ceiling?
Emily's List trains and donates funds to women Democratic candidates at state and federal level.

Its national political director, Karen White, says: "It's going to be a huge year for not just for Democratic women, but for all women."

"We've been working hard to put these women in the pipeline for almost a decade. Here in 2006 the opportunity is there, and many of these women have taken it," she adds.

Surveys do suggest that voters are three times more likely to trust a female politician than a male one, although the number who trust even a woman politician is low - only 21%.

The real test for women may come not this year - but in 2008, during the presidential elections.

New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is the Democratic front-runner for the presidential race.

If she wins and becomes America's first woman president, she really will have broken the ultimate marble ceiling.

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