On January 3, while Republicans in the House of Representatives were deadlocked over electing a speaker of the house, Democratic Senator Patty Murray was briefly second in line to the U.S. presidency.
That’s because the longtime Democratic senator from Washington state made history when she became the first woman to serve as Senate president pro tempore, a largely ceremonial role that will see Murray filling in as head of the Senate whenever Vice President Kamala Harris is absent. In Latin, “pro tempore” means “for the time being.”
“The significance of this moment is certainly not lost on me,” Murray, who was first elected to the Senate in 1992, said in a statement. “As the first woman to serve as President Pro Tempore, I will be the first woman to sign the bills we send to President Biden’s desk for his signature and to be designated to preside over the Senate in the absence of the Vice President. It’s a responsibility I am deeply honored to take on for my country and for Washington state.”
Murray’s colleagues elected her to the position, which is traditionally based on seniority. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, the most senior member of the majority party, did not seek the job. Murray’s rise to the leadership position that puts her third in line to the presidency took decades, underscoring how long the road to progress can be.
“It’s a big deal, and it’s a historic moment, and it’s one that’s been very long in coming,” says Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. “That’s not surprising, because the Senate is an institution that doesn’t turn over very often. So, when it comes to positions of leadership, which are given by seniority … the pace of change is incredibly slow. But it’s still a huge moment.”
If the commander in chief cannot serve, the order of presidential succession is vice president, followed by speaker of the house and then president pro tempore of the Senate. In the last Congress, two women — Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — were the top two people in line for the presidency.
“It’s huge that we have women in these positions of leadership. What I would want to be clear about, though, is that does not mean we’re anywhere close to parity,” Sinzdak says. “We have to celebrate these accomplishments but still acknowledge that there’s work to be done to get closer to equal representation.”
There are now 25 women — one in four members — in the U.S. Senate. In the House of Representatives, fewer than one-third of the members are women. Having women in leadership positions upends traditional notions of who can and should be in those positions, Sinzdak says.
“As we see more and more women serving, it becomes clear women are just as able to serve in those positions as men are, and it normalizes women’s leadership. So, there’s definitely a role modeling effect,” she says. “And I think it also influences other women who may be considering running for office someday. It helps when you see people you can identify with serving in those positions.”