WASHINGTON — Senator Claire McCaskill wandered down the dais at the Senate Armed Services Committee’s first hearing of the year and noticed a startling tableau: women to the left, women to the right.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a veteran Republican member of one of the Senate’s most testosterone-driven panels, was now flanked by them on both sides, including by two Republican colleagues, Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska.
“You’re toast, Graham,” cracked Ms. McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat.
Ms. McCaskill’s joke reflected the seven women now on the Armed Services Committee, a high, and the role that a record 20 female senators are playing on powerful committees. Of the four most prestigious Senate panels — Appropriations, Armed Services, Finance and Foreign Relations — women now hold 18 spots, an increase of nearly 65 percent over the last decade.
But nowhere is the presence of so many women more pronounced than on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where the women on the 26-member panel have forced the long-simmering issue of sexual assault in the military to the forefront on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers have tried to pursue the sexual assault problem for years, with little impact. But now a slew of attention-grabbing bills — most written by women — are intended to end what senior military officials say is a crisis and President Obama has called a disgrace.
“When I raised the issue of rape in the military seven years ago, there was dead silence,” said Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and member of the committee. “Clearly they are changing things around here.”
At a widely watched committee hearing last month, Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, narrowed her eyes with disdain as Michael B. Donley, the secretary of the Air Force, expressed regret about recent assault cases. She then excoriated him and Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the chief of staff of the Air Force, when they suggested that they were making progress on the problem.
“I do not think you should pat yourself on the back,” Ms. Gillibrand admonished them. Sexual assault, she said, is “undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world.” She has since introduced legislation that would give military prosecutors rather than commanders the power to decide which sexual assault cases to try. Her goal is to increase the number of people who report sex crimes without fear of retaliation.
The sexual assault issue has caught the attention of the women on the committee in part because some have law enforcement backgrounds. Ms. McCaskill is a former prosecutor who handled sex crimes and homicides, and Ms. Ayotte was the head of the homicide division in the New Hampshire attorney general’s office.
“When I saw how the military was dealing with this problem, I realized how out of step they were with the criminal justice system,” Ms. McCaskill said. Although the sexual assault issue had been brought before the committee over the years, she said, “the main people asking questions during the hearings are women. That has never really happened on this committee before.”
The women do not dominate the panel on more traditional military issues — the defense budget, the future of the Army, weapons procurement and nuclear policy, to name a few. In those cases, Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is the chairman of the committee, and Senator John McCain, the highest-profile Republican member, have the most powerful voices. Other forceful members include Mr. Graham and Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat.
The men lead on those issues in large part because of their longevity on the committee or because they have the kind of military experience not historically open to women. Mr. Levin has served on the committee for more than three decades, Mr. McCain is a former Navy pilot, Mr. Reed is a former Army Ranger, and Mr. Graham is in the Air Force Reserves.
Ms. Gillibrand said there was a similar male-female pattern when she served on the House Armed Services Committee. “The men asked all the questions about ships, hardware, that sort of thing,” she said. “We asked why divorce and suicide rates were so high.”
But Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, said she saw that dynamic changing. “Women have started to challenge many of the assumptions in the department,” she said, referring to the Pentagon. For example, Ms. McCaskill, a former Missouri state auditor, has repeatedly questioned waste in defense contracting and has made war profiteering one of her signature issues.
Like many of the men, a number of the women are on the committee because of the military bases or shipbuilding concerns in their states, including Senator Kay Hagan, Democrat of North Carolina; Senator Mazie K. Hirono, Democrat of Hawaii; Ms. Gillibrand; Ms. Ayotte; and Ms. Shaheen.
If there is one thing that unifies the women on the committee — five Democrats and two Republicans — it is support for a robust American military.
“These are post-9/11 moms who care about foreign policy because they want our nation to be safe,” said Mr. Graham, who has traveled extensively in Pakistan and Israel with Ms. Gillibrand on trips related to antiterrorism efforts. “They want to make sure our military families are doing well because that means they are ready for the fight.”
The history of women on the Senate Armed Services Committee mirrors women’s general rise in the Senate — slow and plodding — and their history within the military.
The first woman on the committee was Senator Margaret Chase Smith, a Maine Republican who served in both the House and the Senate in the mid-20th century. Ms. Smith, who crusaded during her House career for sexual equality in the military, continued that path when she joined the Senate committee in 1953.
“Women in the military today owe a debt to her getting veterans’ benefits, when the male senators on the committee never gave it a thought,” said Betty Koed, the associate Senate historian.
Women have been in the armed forces since they were nurses, cooks and the occasional saboteur in the American Revolution, but it was not until World War II that large numbers served. Their numbers grew significantly after 1973, when the end of the draft created a need for more women. The huge deployment of troops in the 1991 Persian Gulf war validated the integration of women and emboldened them to seek previously restricted jobs, like flying attack planes.
In the wars of the past 12 years, when more than 280,000 women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, women served in combat in all but name. Reflecting the change, the number of women on the Armed Services Committee began to creep up. In 2001, women made up 10 percent of the committee, compared with nearly 30 percent today.
Women on the committee have included former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, a Republican who focused on military family issues, and Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and an early voice on the sexual assault issue, although she was largely dismissed at the time by military brass.
In 2001, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the new junior senator from New York, sought a seat on the Armed Services Committee rather than the Foreign Relations Committee in part to establish her national security credentials. She traveled frequently to Iraq and Afghanistan and built such strong relationships with top generals that she was mentioned — after her 2008 presidential campaign and while still serving as secretary of state — as a possible successor to Robert M. Gates as defense secretary. Her tenure on the committee became a model of how female senators could be as influential on the panel as the men.
Military families remain a priority of many women on the committee, who have focused in particular on legislation to ease debt and financial concerns. “I think women on this committee bring the perspective of family life back home, getting bills paid, that sort of thing,” Ms. Hagan said.
The women have also added a dimension to Congressional delegation trips overseas. In meetings in the Middle East and parts of South Asia, female senators are often the only women present. Mr. McCain, Ms. Ayotte said, makes an effort to let them speak first to establish their equality in the delegation.
“When we travel to Afghanistan and the Middle East and there are women senators there,” Ms. Ayotte said, “it really sends a strong message to the world that this is what we stand for. This is what we have.”
About the writer: Jennifer Steinhauer is a congressional reporter for The New York Times.