What does the 114th Congress say about our representative democracy?
By Anna Daniels
Did you know that our brand new 114th Congress is the most diverse Congress in our history? Women! African Americans! An African American woman! The 114th Congress is being hawked like a new and improved box of breakfast cereal. This newly minted diversity is relative of course.
A Washington Post article notes that “Congress actually gets slightly more Christian, with nine more Christians, five fewer Jewish members, one fewer Buddhist and one fewer unaffiliated member.” John Boehner, who was re-elected Speaker of the House, opened the 114th Congress with “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.”
For those of us who recall that only 36% of the voting public elected this new batch of congress people, the connection to the divine is a great deal less discernible. And we may want to hold off on the rejoicing and being glad part for a while.
But it is Liza Mundy’s article “The Secret History of Women in the Senate” that positively makes my teeth hurt. “In the entire history of the United States Senate, a mere 44 women have served. Ever. Those few who have were elected to a club they were never meant to join, and their history in the chamber is marked by sexism both spectacular and small.” That is one pathetic statistic.
Women comprise a slight majority in the country and are more inclined to vote than men are, yet Congress is 80% male. This means that 80% of our representatives have never found themselves in need of a tampon–right now. 80% of our representatives have never been and never will be pregnant. 80% have never faced the decades long balancing act of fertility, work, sexuality and education. 80% of our representatives have never given birth.
Those issues are clearly about women’s bodies, women’s health and economic independence and they are the very areas where we are seeing the most governmental intrusion, legislative sandbagging and jaw dropping ignorance.
So does an 80% male make up of Congress matter? Yes it does and the significance goes far beyond Mundy’s memorable examples of a congressional good old boys club. She begins her article with an anecdote about Senator Kay Hagan’s desire to swim in the Senate pool. She was told it was males-only and that it was males-only because some of the male senators liked to swim naked. This occurred in 2008. Mundy follows this up with the potty parity issue–there were originally only two restroom stalls available for congresswomen.
Mundy does point out how the bi-partisan collaboration of congresswomen in the past has influenced some areas of public policy. This collaboration resulted in a bill that enabled homemakers to put money in IRA’s. They shaped national health care policy to include women in studies and clinical trials, which is significant. Ask a woman if she has ever had a urinary tract infection. For years the bulk of the studies and clinical trials focused on male urinary tract health and problems.
It is in the areas of legislation and policy that the exclusion of women is so biting and has such profound consequences. Remember when Darrell Issa convened a hearing about the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act? There were no women on the committee, which was described afterward as a “religious freedom sausage fest.”
Will more women in Congress result in better outcomes for women? At this moment, it doesn’t seem likely. The bi-partisan comity that Mundy describes is probably a thing of the past. Republican congresswomen have voted against pay equity. Last year’s 113th Congress, which was supposed to be all about job creation, kicked off with a “Pro-Life” bill sponsored by Republican Marsha Blackburn.
Perhaps the only good news from a feminist perspective is a rather perverse form of parity which women have achieved. Many years ago I heard the president of NOW describe equality as being when a female schlemiel can get as far in life as a male schlemiel.