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What hasn't changed about women in power since Anita Hill

In 1991, Anita Hill testified in front of an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee about her allega...

Posted: Sep 18, 2018 5:44 AM
Updated: Sep 18, 2018 5:44 AM

In 1991, Anita Hill testified in front of an all-white, all-male Senate Judiciary Committee about her allegations that she was sexually harassed by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas (accusations that he denied). Nearly three decades later, another woman may sit in front of the same committee -- though its makeup has changed overall, its members from the majority party are still all men -- to share her own story of attempted rape by the man, who has also denied it, currently awaiting confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Do the differences between 1991's Judiciary Committee and today's, especially when it comes to gender, matter? In our new book, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, makes a case for why it does. "I think it is easier for a female member to imagine what it's like to be victimized, to be disbelieved, disregarded, and retaliated against," she says. "It is something that they can imagine happening easier than many of our male colleagues who can't imagine ever being victimized or disbelieved or disregarded because they've never experienced that."

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"I think there is a fundamental difference between our world experiences that will allow us to empathize differently," she added.

In an election year in which record numbers of women are on the ballot, speaking with women officeholders provides some insights into the difference it might make if more women win so that they are at the tables -- and on the committees -- where major political decisions are being made. Whether by changing the conversation, or transforming the culture and image of Congress, women's presence in Congress matters. In her interview with us, Representative Donna Edwards, D-Maryland, said "there's just not enough of us, period." 2018 might change that, and the congresswomen we interviewed make the case for why that's a good thing.

Drawn from interviews with 83 congresswomen, the findings in our book point to at least five ways in which women's representation has made a difference in recent congresses.

Congresswomen shape the policy agenda to include overlooked and underaddressed issues. Seated in a House Ways and Means Committee debate, Representative Linda Sánchez, D-California, provided a reality check to her male colleagues about the pressing challenges of finding affordable childcare. In her words, the distinct truth of women's lives "never even crosses (men's) mind(s)."

"I feel like my role as a woman on the committee is very important," she told us, "because I don't just speak for myself, I speak for many similarly situated women. ... (Were I) not there, that perspective (would be) totally absent from the debate."

When Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Massachusetts, introduced the 2015 Prioritizing Online Threat Enforcement Act to compel the Department of Justice to enforce laws prohibiting online violence against women, she tied her advocacy to personal experience, noting, "I don't think any woman who has ever run for office isn't a little familiar with online harassment."

Congresswomen remedy oversights to the benefit of other women. In the 114th Congress, Rep. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, worked with Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, to ensure that World War II Women Airforce Service Pilots could be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, citing her own military service as motivating her fight to honor those who came before her. After she was alerted to the possibility that women amputees were being underserved, Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Massachusetts, included a provision in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that evaluated the Department of Defense's ability to provide the best prosthetic limbs for women. "Those questions would never get asked without us here," she explained.

Congresswomen bring a results-oriented approach to governing. One of the most common refrains among congresswomen we interviewed was their belief that women are more likely than men to focus on achievement over ego. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California, said, in line with research on women's motivation to run for office, "I don't think women come here to be somebody. I think we come here to get things done." That results-oriented approach appears to motivate women's bipartisan work, work that has also been facilitated in part by the relationship-building they have done in single-sex spaces -- including women's dinners, trips, and even sporting events.

Women in Congress are not the antidote to partisan polarization; like men, they are partisan beings. But, across party lines, congresswomen do believe they are more likely than men to be problem-solvers rather than problem-makers.

Congresswomen have worked to bring more women into their ranks. Many congresswomen are committed to increasing the numbers of women in political office. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York, told us about her commitment to meeting with young women "to encourage them to step up to the plate and add their voices to the conversation." This year, she has led candidate recruitment for the National Republican Campaign Committee, with a particular emphasis on recruiting women. Almost universally, congresswomen believe that the influence of women in Congress would be greater if there were more of them.

Congresswomen inspire the next generation of women leaders. Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, described the symbolic importance of her presence in Congress as a black woman: "(Having more women of color in Congress) makes a difference when little African-American girls can dream that they, too, can serve in Congress." As a little girl who "never thought I would be sitting in the United States Congress," Beatty described the privilege she feels in being able to make policy in Washington, DC and then "go back home and sit in the classroom or to sit in the neighborhood center and be able to honestly say, 'Somebody in this room -- lots of you -- can do this.'"

Disrupting expectations of who can and should lead will not only affect girls. As Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Indiana, notes, "I think that we have to change the mindset not only of girls ... we have to change the minds of boys and boys who support girls."

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