WASHINGTON — As newly elected congresswomen are poised to color this city blue, one wonders what effect they’ll realistically have on the gridlock known as the House of Representatives.
At final count, 101 women, mostly Democrats, are headed this way come January. Will they — or can they — work with Republicans?
A popular assumption is that women, solely by virtue of their sex, are somehow better equipped than their male counterparts to find solutions. But are women in 2019 really so eager to form circles, thrash seeds and communally suckle our relatively infant-nation into a more-mature and efficient version of itself?
Another popular (in some circles) assumption counters the other — that women only pretend to work together while actually backstabbing each other to get ahead. Cat-fighting may be an outdated stereotype, but it didn’t come from nowhere.
To begin to answer these questions, four women — two from each party — put their heads together and created a one-day, bipartisan confab here — the “Elevate” summit — to discuss issues on which women can find common ground. The organizers recognized that social issues remain divisive, but a myriad of other concerns provide opportunities to work together, including caregiving, health care and workplace issues.
Tuesday’s summit, where I moderated a panel, was attended by leaders from government, media, industry and national organizations, such as AARP. Some of the other familiar names included female executives from Facebook, Johnson & Johnson and Best Buy, as well as Susan Spencer, editor of Woman’s Day, the largest-circulation women’s magazine in the country.
On the eve of the summit, a reception offered a peek at a selection of female leaders eager to share a glass of wine and exchange business cards. Afterward, a much smaller group — including summit panelists, moderators, legislators and business leaders — sat down to a dinner of loaves and fishes to test the waters for bipartisan opportunities.
“This is sort of an experiment,” said dinner co-host Rachel Pearson.
Thus, seated across the dinner table from each other were Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, which drafts, trains and supports pro-choice women for public office, and Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership. As political figures, they certainly disagree on some issues, but as women, they agree on far more.
Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois, broke down the woman-to-woman dynamic with a sports analogy. This is Washington, after all. The congressional women’s softball team is made up of both Democrats and Republicans. As teammates, the girls play together — and against another team, comprised of Washington’s female press corps.
On the other hand: A corresponding group of congressional men play against themselves — Democrats versus Republicans. To Bustos, this difference in their respective rosters speaks loudly to the way they conduct the nation’s business. Women are more naturally team players; men tend to be more oppositional.
Chamberlain, whose organization aims to discover what suburban women care about, reported that between 2012 and 2017, most were concerned mainly about jobs and the economy. Then, as of January 2017, the emphasis shifted to health care, especially coverage for pre-existing conditions. One can easily deduce what caused this sudden refocusing of priorities. If the caffeine hasn’t kicked in yet: the new president’s planned assault on Obamacare.
Spencer, whose magazine’s 20 million readers tend to live in states between the coasts, echoed that health care is a top concern among women. Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s executive vice president of social impact, spoke of the challenges faced by caregivers, 60 percent of whom are women. Not only do women disproportionately shoulder the burdens/joys of caregiving (though the gap has closed significantly in recent years), they also often lose income and, correspondingly, receive lower Social Security benefits down the line.
When I pointed out that 40 percent of caregivers are, therefore, men — and, wow! — I was reminded that women also typically take off more time for childbirth and child care, so that the added caregiver role for older parents is yet another layer of non-compensatory time away from work.
To these points, other members of the caregiving panel that I moderated included Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., both of whom have worked to mitigate some of these effects. Fischer co-authored legislation as part of last year’s tax bill that extended tax credits to businesses that voluntarily allow employees up to 12 weeks of paid family leave.
Time will tell whether women are as mutually supportive once reality sets in and they have to contend with their own caucuses. On one issue, meanwhile, we can be certain of bipartisan accord. There aren’t enough restrooms for so many women — only four stalls outside the House chambers. Now there’s an issue on which all women can find common cause.