Women came to the rescue in Washington last week. A group of female senators crossed party lines and forged a plan to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. These women spoke the word “compromise” not as an epithet, but as a means of governing. They rolled up their sleeves and found common-ground solutions in order to put Americans back to work and save the global economy.
In so doing, the 16 Democratic and 4 Republican women in the Senate blasted a hole in the stereotype of women as decorative accessories who chat and men as action heroes who get things done. As Time magazine put it: “Women Are the Only Adults Left in Washington.”
During the impasse over the shutdown, according to the Time story, women senators met over pizza in Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) office to flesh out a compromise plan drafted by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). Women senators from both parties put suggestions on the table with the understanding that neither side was going to get everything it wanted. Their discussions sparked interest from male senators, paving the way for the talks between Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that eventually ended the shutdown.
How were the women able to do it?
“We like each other,” Sen. Klobuchar told Time. “We work well together and we look for common ground.” The women senators gather regularly for lunch and dinner; they hold celebrations for each other and have play dates with their kids and grandchildren. The women bring first-hand experience with caring for young children and elderly parents, along with figuring out how to balance the demands of family and work.
Their life experiences cross party lines and connect them to the lives of everyday Americans who face similar challenges. And so it should not be surprising that a government shutdown that blasted a hole in the economic security of millions of families prompted the women senators to reach across partisan divides to fix the problem instead of grabbing a microphone and yelling about who was to blame.
Their cooperative efforts answer the question of whether women make a difference in the institutions where they work and lead: It is a firm yes. But that is not the whole answer; in order for women to make a difference, there must be enough of them in sufficient leadership positions for their diverse voices to be heard.
Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go to reach a critical mass of women in Congress. Women make up more than half of the U.S. population but constitute only 20 percent of the Senate. At this rate, it will take more than 200 years for women to hit the 50 percent mark in Congress.
We can’t afford to wait that long. If we want Congress to get things done instead of just squabbling, we need to elect more women to office. As noted in Time, women in the Senate were responsible for passing most of this year’s legislation, including “the budget, the transportation bill, the farm bill, The Water Resources Development Act, or the Violence Against Women Act.” In addition to getting bills passed, women senators “have driven the debate on everything from derivates reform to sexual assault in the military.”
Ironically, it was the everyday experiences of women senators—along with their outsider status in a male-dominated institution—that helped give them the skills and allies they needed to make the government work for the American people. These women may not wear shiny red capes to work, but these days in Washington, their accomplishments qualify as superpowers.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.