‘Leading Compromise’: US Women Senators Confront the Political Impasse in October 2013


by Veronica Strong-Boag

womenSince the suffrage crusades, both scholars and popular observers have debated whether women would make a difference to ‘old boy’ agendas. Given many women’s subsequent identification with partisan politics, the discipline imposed by party whips and other pressures to toe the line, not to mention the multiple loyalties (of class, race, etc.) they share with other groups, and not always with one another, skepticism is understandable. There are nonetheless enough instances of political ‘sisterhoods’ that cross party lines to hearten the hopeful.

Such seems to have been the case when US Democrats (a majority in the Senate) and Republicans (a majority in the House of Representatives) stood at daggers drawn in the summer and fall of 2013. The former’s determination to, at long last, extend public medical insurance (albeit under far more constrained conditions than other leading western democracies) was fiercely opposed by the latter, notably its Tea Party hardliners. For weeks, much of the US federal government was shut down and fears grew of a national default. That disaster was averted, at least for the time being, by the compromise reached a bipartisan Senate committee composed of six women and eight men.  Immediate commentators credited women senators with leadership.

Women’s influence and numbers has been growing since the election of the 103rd Congress (1993-1995), familiarly referred to as the ‘Year of the Woman’. This survived the return of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives with the 104th Congress (1995-1997), known as the ‘Year of the Angry White Male’ (Dodson). By 2013, the 113th Congress included a record 20 women senators — 16 Democrats and four Republicans. By then too, some women had gained substantial credibility as senior members and chairs of nine significant committees, including both Budget and Appropriations.  Susan Collins of Maine, one of the three female Republicans on the bipartisan 2013 committee, was regarded as her party’s “most powerful moderate.” At least as influential was women’s habit, vigorously encouraged by the longest-serving female senator, Barbara Mikulski (Maryland), Chair of the Appropriations Committee, of getting together socially for dinners, showers and children’s playdates, and their  “practice of meeting regularly and working on smaller bills together, even in a highly polarized Congress” (Weisman and Steinhauer).

In 2010, Democratic Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, from New York, and Collins had championed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” For the first time openly gay and lesbian military personnel were allowed to serve. Three years later, all four female Republican senators voted with Democrats for the Violence Against Women Act (Steinhauer). Furthering a sense of ‘sisterhood,’ was the unwritten rule not to criticize each other publicly and a recognition, as one member explained, of  “a different life experience than a lot of senior guys in the room” (N. Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp quoted in Newton-Small, “Women”). Shared experience of sexism before and after election helped as well (Netwon-Small, “11 Things”). While the larger group of Democrats benefitted from the better alignment of core party values with liberal feminism, Republican women moderates remained sensitive to the gendered impact of public policy (See Swers). In September and October 2013, the disproportionate injury inflicted on women workers and recipients of state services by the closure of many federal offices was easy to observe.

Women’s talent for compromise and getting things done proved popular. The bipartisan meeting of women senators was quickly joined by male moderates, including Republican John McCain (Arizona), who wondered “what they could do if there were 50 of them” (quoted Newton-Small, “Women”). The resulting compromise (one favouring the Democratic position) pulled the US back from the brink of financial disaster (though this threat was denied by the Tea Party).

The crisis in American politics was nevertheless only postponed to 2014 when budget approval would once again be needed. In the meantime, both parties and their women members will be sounding voters, who come to the polls in mid-term elections in November 2014.  What will the electorate make of women’s bipartisan leadership when 33 Senate seats are up for grabs and will the impact for Democrats and Republican women, since the latter have traditionally had a harder time in winning their party nomination, be the same (Dittmar)? The result will offer a substantial comment on women’s role in American politics.



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Dittmar, Kelly. “Primary problems: Women Candidates in U.S. House Primaries,” Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. 3 Oct. 2013, http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/research/documents/Primary-Problems-10-1-13.pdf, accessed 27 Oct. 2013.

Dodson, Debra L., The Impact of Women in Congress (NY: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Newton-Small, Jay. “11 Things You Don’t Know About the Senate Sisterhood.” Time. 16 Oct. 2013, http://swampland.time.com/2013/10/16/11-things-you-dont-know-about-the-senate-sisterhood/

Newton-Small. “Women Are the Only Adults Left in Washington,” Time. 16 Oct. 2013 http://swampland.time.com/2013/10/16/women-are-the-only-adults-left-in-washington/.

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Rosenthal, Cindy Simon, ed. Women Transforming Congress (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002).

Steinhauer, Jennifer. “Women Make New Gains in the Senate.” New York Times. 21 March 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/22/us/politics/women-make-new-gains-in-the-senate.html

Swers, Michele. Women in the Club: Gender and Policy Making in the Senate (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Weisman, Jonathan and Jennifer Steinhauer, “Senate Women Lead in Effort to Find Accord.” New Tork Times. 14 Oct. 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/15/us/senate-women-lead-in-effort-to-find-accord.html?_r=0

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag, Ph.D, FRSC, is a Canadian historian specializing in the modern history of women and children in Canada. She is Professor Emerita of Women's History at the University of British Columbia. In 1988 she won the John A. Macdonald Prize (awarded to the best book in Canadian history) for her study of the lives of women in Canada between the wars, entitled The New Day Recalled. In 1993–94 she served as president of the Canadian Historical Association. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2001. In July 2012 the Royal Society of Canada announced that Strong-Boag would be awarded the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal "for outstanding work in the history of Canada."