As of January 3, 2013, there were 20 women in the United States Senate, more than in any other Congress in American history. Last June, that select group convened in the U.S. Capitol’s Appropriations Committee hearing room to privately discuss a direly pressing issue: Military rape. Of the estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, only 3,000 were reported and 300 prosecuted. It was time for the female senators to agree on a single bill.
Yet they couldn’t do it. Instead, two bills, one from New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand and one from Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, moved forward. Gillibrand’s bill, backed by 17 of the female senators, couldn’t overcome a filibuster last week. Only three of the female senators signed onto McCaskill’s bill — yet it’s expected to pass a Monday afternoon Senate vote with flying colors. How did she do it?
For one, McCaskill’s pre-Senate career primed her to address the long-overlooked problem of military rape. McCaskill is one of three former prosecutors now serving as female senators, along with North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp and New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte. TIME notes that McCaskill made her name as an attorney prosecuting rape cases that others wouldn’t touch. “I have more experience prosecuting sexual assault cases than anyone in the Senate. I have spent more time holding the hands of rape victims,” she said when she presented her bill that June day. “This bill does not let anyone off easy.”
That’s no exaggeration. Her bill expands the rights and options for victims, while holding everyone accountable for their actions. For instance, the “good soldier” defense currently invokes factors such as the service record of the accused. McCaskill’s bill would kill that defense. Under her bill, the victim receives a say in whether the case will be handled in a civilian or military court if the crime occurred off of a military base. Meanwhile, a commander’s record on handling of sexual-assault cases would be taken into account with every promotion. As TIME points out, the measure also extends important protections to students in service academies like the Air Force and Naval Academies, where numbers of rapes are increasing.
Opponents exist both inside and outside politics. Some Senators think that McCaskill’s bill is easy on rapists. “The most frustrating thing about this,’’ she told the Washington Post, “is the narrative that, ‘Whose side are you on, the victim’s or the commander’s?’ That’s offensive.” Victims’ groups fear another round broken promises, as politicians such as California’s Barbara Boxer and Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, have pushed for reforms for decades with no progress.
In the face of scrutiny and competition, all female senators have taken pains to maintain their supportive sorority. Nearly all of the women are now expected to back McCaskill’s bill. “We’re now 20 women total in the Senate,” Mikulski told TIME. “We disagree on some issues, even the bills before us. But we agree on the goal of providing more prosecutorial tools to punish criminals, ensuring fairness in the process and getting help to victims.”