Saturday, October 26, 2013

Sisterhood in the Senate

Recently, women in the Senate showed that it is still possible to overcome partisan divisions on the Hill. A feature in Time magazine this week, "Women are the Only Adults Left in Washington", examined the relationships that have developed among women Senators, and how these Senators capitalize on those relationships to overcome gridlock. The article describes the end of the era of the "old boys' club," and claims that it is now made up of the "the four Republicans and 16 democrats who happen to be women." But it is not by chance that these Senators are all women, that's what has created the bond that allows them to work well together. The article credits dinners and an unofficial rule that women do not criticize each other.

This article raises some interesting questions about coalitions within the Senate. It raises the point that women are far from achieving parity in Congress, and while there are some women in powerful leadership roles (Sens. Murray, Mikulski, among others), there are many committees that have yet to have a female chair. Furthermore, party leadership in the Senate is currently all men. So perhaps what allows the 20 female Senators to refrain from criticizing each other and to broker effective deals is that they are outsiders, in a sense. As we saw during the government shutdown, party leaders such as Majority Leader Reid and Minority Leader McConnell spent a good deal of time assigning blame and claiming credit. But Senators Collins and Mikulski, who got the ball rolling on a potential solution to the government shutdown, had the opportunity to refrain from assigning blame and claiming credit for their parties because they are not in formal leadership positions. It is interesting to think about women Senators' actions during the government shutdown as a unique variation of credit claiming. Rather than claiming credit for themselves or for their party, women in the Senate have been able to quietly claim credit for their bipartisan work, as evidenced by the Time article.

It would also be useful to think about whether these kind of relationships exist in the House. There is roughly the same proportion of women in the House as in the Senate, and yet those women have not garnered the same kind of attention for building relationships and working together across party lines.


  1. You mentioned that Senators Collins and Mikulski did not blame/credit claim because they were not in leadership positions, so do you think that if more women held positions that we would see a decrease in this behavior? Is it merely the fact that they need to form coalitions with other women to gather support and votes that they are "playing nice" between party lines and, without formal positions, this is the only way to do it?

  2. If you think about the small number of formal leadership positions that exist in the Senate, I think it would still be possible for women to form strong coalitions across parties lines even with women holding more leadership positions. Sometimes compromises have to come from someone who isn't part of party leadership (think Sen. Schumer and the Gang of 8 during the immigration debate) in order to be effective.

  3. I think your point about women working together in the Senate because they are all outsiders may help explain why women in the House are not known for working together of frequently. While women still hold fewer leadership positions in the House, the fact that the former Speaker and current Minority Leader is a women would remove a lot of the outsider mentality of the group. It would be interesting to look further into how Nancy Pelosi's leadership has influenced gender divisions in the House.


  4. I wonder if the reason women in the Senate don't criticize each other has roots in their likability as candidates. Is it possible that they can be viewed as over aggressive if they were to attack other women? Ideally women in the senate should be able to criticize men as well as women, but if that comes at the expense of legislative efficiency then I suppose it is alright that women don't criticize each other for now.

  5. I commend the women in Congress for their bipartisan achievements. It is true that none of the 20 women hold official leadership positions, but they still led the negotiations in the conference committee discussions. Because these women had to overcome gender discrimination to get to where they are, I would argue that the average female Senator is a better leader/negotiator than the average male Senator, so I'm not at all surprised that they are taking the lead in these bipartisan efforts. As women continue to gain more seats in Congress, do you think that this coalition is sustainable? I can't imagine 50 women (or people in general) of varying ideologies managing to serve as Senators while still promising not to criticize each other. It seems to be an easier promise to make when they are the minority.