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Retiring Texas Senator Says Barriers to Women in Politics Have Diminished

U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison
U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

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Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the highest ranking female Republican in the U.S. Senate recently announced she will not run for re-election in 2012 and will retire from politics. A conservative and a four-term Senator, Hutchison will be remembered for her commitment to Texas, to education and women’s issues and for her southern charm.

There were only seven female Senators in the U.S. Senate when Kay Bailey Hutchison won a 1993 special election in Texas.  She has now been re-elected three times. A former bank executive and State Treasurer, Hutchison - at age 49 - was the first woman to represent the state of Texas in the U.S. Senate. She says a lot has changed for American women in politics since she first ran for the Senate.

"When I first started in politics I had to prove that I can do the job, prove that I was tough and strong and you’re tested," she said.  "But I think that each time women do well in a higher office then people aren’t worried anymore and I think we have made good progress in that regard."

Hutchison was a trail blazer even before she became a U.S. Senator. She was the first woman to earn a law degree at the University of Texas and the first Republican woman to be Texas State Treasurer.

"Kay Bailey Hutchison has had many, many firsts; she’s opened many doors for women in Texas and in the Republican Party, " said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the Cook Political Report.

In the Senate, Hutchison became known as a great supporter of the U.S. space agency NASA, whose mission control center is in Houston, Texas. She is also a supporter of education and the U.S. military.  She says she never ran as a woman but as an American wanting to make a change.

"What you really want is not to be an issue whether that you are a woman or man. It’s what you believe and what you say you are going to do that really is important," she said. "You just want to be judged like everyone else rather than having to be better in order to be equal."

Though popular in her home state - the largest oil-producing state in the nation - Hutchison was criticized elsewhere at times for receiving contributions from oil companies and for not supporting environmental issues.  In her 17 years in Washington, she says she felt constantly challenged and cast some votes she found difficult - including authorizing the use of military force in Iraq in 2002.

"It’s not an easy job because you know you will make some people unhappy in a controversial vote," she said. "There are many times that you are torn but you have to make a decision, that’s part of the job."

One of her proudest achievements is the passage of a bill that gives American stay-at- home mothers retirement accounts, a benefit previously only held by working women. The bill was a bipartisan effort that got the support of her democratic, counterparts including then-Senator Hillary Clinton.

"What I think she will be remembered for in the history of the United States Senate is her ability to work with people outside her party and ability to find answers to problems and to forge that compromise that results in successful legislation," Jennifer Duffy said.

In 2009, Hutchison ran for Governor of Texas but lost in the Republican primary.  While she has no plans to seek higher office herself, she says America is closer than ever to having a woman president.

"I think it’s going to happen very soon, I do. I think that we have women now in the Senate, women who have proven themselves in business," she said.  "All are getting up there and I do believe we will have a woman president in my lifetime."

Senator Hutchison will leave the Senate next year after almost two decades in Washington.

She says there are fewer barriers now for women in politics than when she ran for the first time. But she points out that the 100-member Senate still has only 17 women - only 10 more than when she first took office.

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