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The Changing Face of Power
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Senator Barbara Boxer is one of the fourteen women senators profiled in "The Changing Face of Power," a photography exhibit at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute in Minneapolis. (Photo/ Melina Mara)
Thirty-three women have served in the United States Senate in its more than 200 year history. Fourteen of them are in office right now. A new exhibit at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute documents the lives of those women as they negotiate a terrain traditionally ruled by men. It's called "The Changing Face of Power."

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Image Senator Maria E. Cantwell

St. Paul, Minn. — In a black-and-white image, the camera focuses in on a ring of senators feet as they gather in conversation. Several pairs of shiny wingtips stand in marked contrast to one pair of classy high-heels.

Photographer Melina Mara says for her the image represents the different standard that women are held to when it comes to physical appearance. Mara says she tried to capture in her photographs images both of women holding their own and the disadvantages they face in their jobs.

Ever since women gained the right to vote in 1920, female senators have trickled in and out of Capitol Hill in ones, twos, and threes. That is, until 1993, when a record five women were elected to office. Since then their numbers have steadily grown.

Mara says she felt compelled to document this surge of women in politics. She says the only other coverage she found were soft features profiling senators' favorite recipes or fashion tips.

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Image Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton

In the show her photographs are accompanied by audio of interviews White House journalist Helen Thomas conducted with the senators. In one excerpt, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Ak) responds to a question about balancing her work and her personal life.

"Think about it! Look at our male colleagues!" says Hutchison. "Do we ever ask them how do you balance your family life with your job? No, they just do it."

Minnesota has had only one woman in the U.S. Senate. Her name was Muriel Humphrey and she was appointed to fill the vacancy left by the death of her husband, Hubert.

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Image Senator Patty Murray

Political scientist Sally Kenney, director of the Center of Women and Public Policy at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute, says the fact that Minnesota has never elected a woman to the Senate is both a shortcoming and a paradox.

"Minnesota has been a real center of organized feminism," says Kenney. "For example we had the first ever battered women's shelter in the country, we have the Minnesota Women's Consortium, and we have the Minnesota Women's Campaign Fund, which is a pact to try to elect women to public office. So there's been alot of women's movement activity in Minnesota, yet it hasn't always translated into electoral success for women candidates and that's something that many people are trying to fix."

Kenney says the exhibit is paired with a number of related talks, and she is teaching a course this year on women and politics with former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.

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Image Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

Former Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe remembers what she went through when she ran for U.S. Senate in 1984 and lost. She says she thinks there was a double standard. Growe says she often had to field questions about her gender when she wanted to talk about her political agenda.

"I wish I'd had the answer Pat Schroeder had when they asked her what it was like being a woman running for president. She said 'I didn't know I had any other option.' But I think that when you haven't had women in that position before in your state you don't have any role models to look at, to get advice from, to see how they handle themselves," says Kenney.

Growe says it's wonderful that people are honoring the work of women in politics, but she's more focussed on how much remains to be done.

"My hope," says Kenney, "would be that when people go to the exhibit or hear about it they'll say 'Wait a minute! There's something wrong with this picture. There aren't very many women here compared to the number who serve in the U.S. Senate.' And so perhaps we just need to continue to educate people about the contributions that women can make; that women are half of the population and we're really doing ourselves a disservice when we don't make use of the talent and skill of the many women who are interested in public service."

The Changing Face of Power runs through February 20 at the Humphrey Forum in Minneapolis. Photographer Melina Mara is now working on a book of the photographs, which she expects to be out late next fall.

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