By Glenna Matthews
An article in the New York Times of October 15, 2013, in the midst of the government shutdown, caught my eye: "Senate Women Lead in Effort to Find Accord" its headline announced. Over the next few days there was more reporting about the role played by women senators in ending the crisis over the debt limit and the government shutdown, including a major article in Time magazine, "Women Are the Only Adults Left in Washington."
"Wow!" I thought.
I grew up in the era before the rebirth of feminism. There were no women on my radar screen in positions of political authority, except for the redoubtable Senator Margaret Chase Smith, Republican of Maine. There were no women principals in schools as I was growing up. There were no women doctors with whom I interacted. The cultural message I received was that if I wanted to get married and have a family, I’d better keep my achievements and ambitions under wraps. So it’s simply breathtaking to read that not only are there a record twenty women in the Senate (and eighty in the House), but also that there are enough of them to make a real impact in solving, temporarily at least, a seemingly intransigent problem.
Let me deal with one issue immediately. To say that gender matters in the behavior of women politicians is not to say that women are inherently cooperative or unselfish. However, it is to say that we are inculcated with the belief that we need to provide the social glue in contentious situations. This is not about biology, nor is it a normative statement. It’s simply an acknowledgment of the fact that there are differential patterns of socialization for boys and girls, and that some of what we absorb can be of value in difficult times. Indeed, one of the books I reviewed for Women’s Review of Books, Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate, by Michele L. Swers, is predicated on the idea that gender influences the behavior of women senators--and not because of biology.
So what did the women senators do to play such an important role? Three Republicans--Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (both relatively moderate) and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire (elected with Tea Party support--began meeting with two of their Democratic counterparts, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Patty Murray of Washington, to try to forge a bipartisan agreement. Mikulski and Murray chair important committees, Appropriations and Budget respectively, so when they were willing to negotiate, the contours of a deal began to emerge, laying the groundwork for the eventual settlement.
As it happens, the three Republicans who started the ball rolling were on the Today show on October 16, and I happened to be watching. What was particularly striking in their demeanor was their willingness to stand up to bullying from the right--such as the label they’d quickly received, the "Surrender Caucus." We have witnessed the spectacle of many Republicans who initially seem willing to be reasonable--including Speaker of the House John Boehner--who then cave in to pressure from the small group of Tea Party politicians egged on by right-wing lobbyists and talk radio hosts. How refreshing to hear Murkowski say that the national interest was more important than her political future, as she did on the Today show.
When we began to be active in the dawning women’s movement, circa 1970, our mantra was "sisterhood is powerful." Turns out that we were right!
Glenna Matthews is an author of Running as a Women: Gender and Power in American Politics and other books on women’s history and politics.