The veteran senator is third in line for president

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On January 3, while House Republicans were deadlocked over the speaker’s election, Democratic Senator Patty Murray was briefly second to the US 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 Murray would fill as Senate president whenever Vice President Kamala Harris was absent. In Latin, “pro tempore” means “at the present time.”

“I certainly have not lost sight of the importance of this moment to me,” Murray, who was first elected to the Senate in 1992, said in a statement. “As the first woman to serve as Pro Tempore Chair, I will be the first woman to sign the bills we send to President Biden’s desk for his signature and appointment to the Senate presidency in the vice president’s absence. A responsibility that I am honored to assume for the sake of my country and the state of Washington.”

Murray’s colleagues elected her to the position, which is traditionally based on seniority. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the most senior member of the majority party, did not look for the job. Murray’s rise to the leadership position that puts her third in line for the presidency took decades, underscoring how long a road advancement can take.

“It’s a big deal, and it’s a historic moment, and it’s a moment that’s been a long, long time coming,” says Jane Sinzdak, co-director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. “That’s not surprising, because the Senate is an institution that doesn’t change very often. So when it comes to positions of leadership, which are awarded by seniority…the pace of change is incredibly slow. But it’s still a huge moment.”

In this file photo, Senator Patty Murray attends a political rally with then Vice President Joe Biden on the campus of the University of Washington – Tacoma, October 8, 2010.

If the commander-in-chief cannot serve, the order of presidential succession is the vice president, followed by the speaker of the House of Representatives and then the president pro tempore of the Senate. In the last Congress, two women — Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — were at the top of the list of presidential candidates.

“It’s great that we have women in these leadership positions. What I’d like to make clear about, though, is that this doesn’t mean we’re anywhere near parity,” says Cinzdak. “We should celebrate these achievements but still recognize that there is work to be done to move closer to equal representation.”

There are now 25 women – one in four – in the US Senate. Women make up less than a third of the members of the House of Representatives. Having women in leadership positions, says Sinzdak, upends traditional notions of who can and should be in those positions.

“As we see more and more women serving in the service, it becomes clear that women are just as capable of serving in those positions as men, and that normalizes female leadership. So, there is definitely a role model,” she says. “And I think it also affects other women who might consider running for office one day. It helps when you see people you can identify with to serve in those positions.”

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