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Are women our only hope in Washington?

Women make up only one-fifth of the US Senate. Not quite a good representation of society’s demographic breakdown, but it appears that they can do what the men can’t — namely, get things done.

In a Congress famous for gridlock, not accomplishments, the women of the house are possibly our only hope for how politics should be done in Washington. They have re-created among themselves a bygone world, one in which senators drank together in the offices of their leaders or the Senate secretary; in which their families lived in Washington, and their kids played and went to school together, Democrats and Republicans alike. The women do it in part through their famously private dinners, begun 20 years ago to create what Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine calls a “safe space” for women to talk about their problems and triumphs, their children, their parents, and their passions. Held every couple of months at the Capitol, in restaurants, or at their homes, they are for senators only—no press, no staff, no leaks, and, until recently, no men. That changed in April when President Obama, acting on a suggestion from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., invited them all to dinner at the White House.

Sixteen Democrats and four Republicans make up the Senate women’s caucus. They span the ideological spectrum from San Francisco-area liberals Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to tea-party favorites Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. The age spectrum runs from Feinstein, 80, to Ayotte, 45. Barbara Mikulski, elected in 1986, is the longest-serving woman in Senate history.

The most measurable aspect of the ever-increasing presence of women, and so far the most significant, is their impact on national policy—from making sure federal researchers included women in clinical trials, to the show of force on sexual assaults in the military. Onetime “women’s issues” such as health, education, child care, abortion, and pay equity are now prominent on the congressional docket. “If you made a list and flipped back a couple of decades, that list would be an agenda for outside advocacy groups,” says Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. “Those issues are now inside. And they’re inside because there are women inside.”

In a new Time magazine article titled “The Last Politicians,” Jay Newton-Small suggests that women Are the only adults left in Washington, and highlights how with the federal government at shutdown's door, the 20 female Senate members have been setting new standards for civility and bipartisanship.

At one of the darkest moments of the government shutdown, with markets dipping and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue hurling icy recriminations, Maine Republican Susan Collins went to the Senate floor to do two things that none of her colleagues had yet attempted. She refrained from partisan blame and proposed a plan to end the crisis. “I ask my Democratic and Republican colleagues to come together,” Collins said on Oct. 8. “We can do it. We can legislate responsibly and in good faith.”

Senate Appropriations Committee chair Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, happened to be standing nearby, and she soon picked up a microphone and joined in. “Let’s get to it. Let’s get the job done,” she said. “I am willing to negotiate. I am willing to compromise.” Ten minutes later, a third Senator stood to speak. “I am pleased to stand with my friend from Maine, Senator Collins, as she has described a plan which I think is pretty reasonable,” said Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski. “I think it is pretty sensible.”

The burst of bipartisan vibes was meant to send a message. But behind the scenes, the wheels really were turning. Most of the Senate’s 20 women had gathered the previous night for pizza, salad and wine in the offices of New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat. All the buzz that night was about Collins’ plan to reopen the government with some basic compromises. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, proposed adding the repeal of the unpopular medical-­device tax. Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow suggested pulling revenue from her stalled farm bill. In policy terms, it was a potluck dinner.

In the hours that followed, those discussions attracted more Senators, including some men, and yielded a plan that would lead to genuine talks between Senate leaders Harry Reid and Mitch ­McConnell to end the shutdown.

Read more of the Time article here

The most arguable contention is that women have a particular talent for working with others. If you ask them what they bring to the Senate, almost all of them say things like this: more collaboration, less confrontation; more problem-solving, less ego; more consensus-building, less partisanship. Those are fixed perceptions, not just among the senators but, research shows, among voters as well.

In the end it’s all about working together and getting along and the women members have thrown showers for women who are getting married or adopting children. They socialize with their families at each other’s homes. They run together and discuss how to juggle a Senate career and the responsibility of raising young children.

Don’t men in the Senate bond with each other? They do, the women concede, but usually at the gym, with less conversation, and in smaller, self-selected, less inclusive groups. “It’s who they choose to be with, rather than saying, ‘I need to understand who this person is that I don’t know well,’ ” Murray says.

Assistant Senate Historian Katherine Scott confirms that the women have something unusual going on. “The Democrats and Republicans come together, and they actually know each other pretty well—and they’re proud of that,” she says. “They’ve tried to establish this relationship outside of the institution as a way to make them more effective members within the institution.”

It’s easy to include everyone—easy to make reservations, some of the women joke—when your whole group totals 20. If there were 80 women in the Senate, as there are men, they might often end up in small groups of like-minded people, just like the men. But there’s also the intriguing possibility that more women could lead to a more functional Senate.


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