Women Are the Only Adults Left in Washington

With the federal government at shutdown's door, the 20 female Senate members are setting new standards for civility and bipartisanship. Look out, old boys' club

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Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Senators Murkowski, Ayotte, center, and Collins, right, broke the logjam to open the government and avert default.

This article appears in the October 28, 2013 issue of TIME under the title “The Last Politicians.” To subscribe to TIME magazine for $2.99 a month, please click here.

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.”

As with most anything that happens on C-SPAN, 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. The ­pieces were all there: extending the debt ceiling and reopening the government with minor adjustments to the ­implementation of Obamacare. No one doubted the origin. “The women are an incredibly positive force because we like each other,” Klobuchar boasted to TIME as the negotiations continued. “We work together well, and we look for common ground.”

It’s quite an irony that the U.S. Senate was once known for having the worst vestiges of a private men’s club: unspoken rules, hidden alliances, off-hours socializing and an ethic based at least as much on personal relationships as merit to get things done. That Senate — a fraternal paradise that worked despite all its obvious shortcomings — is long gone. And now the only place the old boys’ network seems to function anymore is among the four Republicans and 16 Democrats who happen to be women.

Cigars and poker are out. The women’s club offers some of the same benefits that came in the original men’s version, as well as some updates: mentor lunches and regular dinners, started decades ago by Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in the Senate, but also bridal and baby showers and playdates for children and grandchildren. An unspoken rule among what Collins calls “the sisterhood” holds that the women refrain from publicly criticizing one another. And there is a deep sense that more unites them personally than divides them politically. “One of the things we do a bit better is listen,” says North Dakota Democrat ­Heidi Heitkamp. “It is about getting people in a room with different life experiences who will look at things a little differently because they’re moms, because they’re daughters who’ve been taking care of senior moms, because they have a different life experience than a lot of senior guys in the room.”

The notion that women in power function differently from men, more ­collaboratively and thus more effectively, has long been an intuitively appealing but empirically unproven theory. Lately, the U.S. Senate has been running a lab test. Women now chair or sit as ranking members of 10 of the Senate’s 20 committees and are responsible for passing the vast majority of legislation this year, whether it be the budget, the transportation bill, the farm bill, the Water Resources Development Act or the Violence Against Women Act. They have driven the debate on everything from derivatives reform to sexual assault in the military.

Perhaps most important, they are showing how to make things happen. “I am very proud that these women are stepping forward,” says Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican. “Imagine what they could do if there were 50 of them.”

(MORE: 11 Things You Don’t Know About the Senate Sisterhood)

Civility Above All
Whatever anyone says, official Washington remains a hidebound city. At the White House and on K Street, women still struggle for the top jobs, and in the House, the sole chairwoman, Candice Miller, leads a committee that oversees the Capitol’s in-house staff, cleaning and maintenance, shops and gardens. Inappropriate behavior, casual chauvinism and old-fashioned views of gender roles still pervade everyday life. A Senator waiting to get on an elevator once barked at Klobuchar that it was for Senators only. Her aide informed the man that she was a Senator. As the doors slid closed on his stunned face, Klobuchar quipped with a smile, “And who are you?” Almost all the Senate women have stories of being kept out of rooms, clubs, caucuses and huddles, of being patronized, hit on and scolded for abandoning their children. “Running for Senate, I did get a number of people who would ask, ‘What’s going to happen to your children?’” Kelly Ayotte, Republican Senator from New Hampshire, says. “My husband would be offended by that too.”

Against that backdrop, the private gatherings among the sisterhood are a source of both power and perspective. They occur every few weeks or months, depending on the need. Venues include the Senators’ homes — and occasionally the unlikely confines of the Capitol’s Strom Thurmond Room, a space named for one of the chamber’s most notorious womanizers. “We started the dinners 20 years ago on the idea that there has to be a zone of civility,” says Mikulski. Once a year the group also dines with the female Supreme Court Justices. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence, holds regular dinners for women in the national-­security world. Even the female chiefs of staff and communications directors have started regular get-togethers of their own. In April the Senate women breached their no-outsider rule by agreeing to dine at the White House with President Obama. Going around the table, California Senator Barbara Boxer remarked that 100 years ago they’d have been meeting outside the White House gates to demand the right to vote. (“A hundred years ago, I’d have been serving you,” Obama replied.)

It’s a diverse group, ranging in age from Feinstein, who is 80, to Ayotte, who is 45. Feinstein makes herself available to every new female Senator who wants advice on how she runs her offices. In her trademark pearls, she is Pacific Heights proper and even has a dress code for her staff: stockings and skirts of a certain length. Meanwhile, Ayotte and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, get down and dirty during softball practice for a charity team they both play on and have been spotted in their offices in sneakers, still covered in mud.

Close political alliances have developed among several of the women. Boxer has taken a special interest in Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren — both are liberal firebrands. Democrat Claire McCaskill, who hails from a red state and faced a tough re-election campaign last year, made a point of courting Republican friendships early on. Sometimes those friendships trump party: Ayotte refused to campaign for fellow Republican Todd Akin, McCaskill’s opponent in 2012, and pointedly condemned him when he started sharing his theories about how women’s biology offers a natural defense against pregnancy from “legitimate” rape.

In private and public, strict rules of civility are enforced. At one recent dinner, Warren brought up antiabortion bills pending in the House, railing against Republicans for their “war against women.” Her complaint was greeted with admonitions from her fellow Democrats: We don’t talk about partisan issues here. Two of the 20 women are pro-life: Ayotte and Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer.

(MORE: Obama Signs Bill to End Government Shutdown, Avoid Default)

A Greater Responsibility
When Heitkamp voted against tightening gun laws after the Newtown school shooting, she was unprepared for the backlash, particularly from women’s groups. “A female friend in the Senate said to me, ‘You know, it’s because they feel you represent all women, not just the women of North Dakota,’” Heitkamp says. “And it just clicked for me for the first time. I was, like, ‘Oh, now I get it.’”

Most of the Senators say they feel they speak not just for the voters in their states but for women across America. Over the years they have pushed through legislation that has vastly expanded funding of women’s- and children’s-health research, testing and treatment. They’ve passed the Lilly ­Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and other anti­discrimination laws. And they’ve won federally mandated maternity and family medical leave. While most of these efforts were driven by Democrats, the women are strongest when they unite on legislation like the Homemakers IRA, which allows tax-deductible contributions to retirement plans by stay-at-home parents.

In April 2011, at the end of the budget debate, Patty Murray, a Democratic Senator from Washington, got a call at home from majority leader Reid summoning her to the Capitol. It was 11 p.m., and she found a room full of men who’d been working to avert a government shutdown. They said they were close to a deal, but cuts to Planned Parenthood sought by House Republicans were still on the table. Murray, who is the highest-ranking female Senator in leadership, hit the roof. “Absolutely not,” she recalls telling them. She organized four press conferences with female members over the next three days to highlight the importance of Planned Parenthood for providing not just abortions but also contraception, mammograms and children’s health. The funding was preserved.

That doesn’t mean the women always win. During the immigration-bill markup, Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono grilled South Carolina ­Republican Lindsey Graham about college-diploma requirements for new visas. She noted the disparity in female access to education in the developing world. “Could you share with us how you think that unmarried women would fare under the merit system?” asked ­Hirono, who immigrated with her mother to the U.S. as a child. Graham replied that they could come with their families. Hirono, Murkowski and 10 other women introduced an amendment to allot visas to health workers, nannies and those in other traditionally female professions. Though the measure was popular, it failed to get a vote in the Senate.

What Hasn’t Changed
Most of the legislation passed by female chairs this year has been gender blind: Stabenow’s farm bill, Boxer’s transportation and water-resources bill, Murray’s budget and Mikulski’s appropriations bills. All four of those chairwomen say their success comes from a willingness to deal and a disinclination to grandstand. Stabenow divvied up the farm bill like “a big sister handing out chores,” says Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat on the Agriculture Committee. And she was tough: Leahy said he was glad when the bill passed, if only to stop Stabenow “from calling me in the middle of the night.” Mikulski is effective, says Reid, because “everyone’s afraid of her.”

Some elements of Senate life, meanwhile, remain unchanged. Women still have a long way to go to match the clout of their male colleagues. Twenty-five states have yet to elect a woman to the Senate. Many committees have yet to see female chairs. A recent Institute for Women’s Policy Research study showed that at the current rate, it would take more than a century for women to reach parity in Congress.

Collins and her co-conspirators get the lion’s share of the credit for starting the process to break the weeks-long stalemate over government spending and the debt ceiling. “We need to be pragmatic. This is not going to be a Republican solution or a Democratic solution. This is going to be a solution that is good for the country,” Murkowski told NBC’s Today show on Oct. 16. “The six women that have been working together do have a good bipartisan solution.” But even the fate of their bid to end the shutdown was illustrative of how far women have to go in the Senate. Shortly after proposing a basic outline and convening a working group of 12 Senators — half of them women — ­Collins and her crew found the negotiations co-opted by the two party leaders, both male. Though much of the Collins plan became a part of the final talks, particularly the timelines and some small changes to Obamacare, the women no longer had control of the process.

That will likely have to wait a few more years, until a woman takes her place as majority or minority leader.

INTERACTIVE MAP: These Are the Republicans Who Voted for Government Default

432 comments
KayMerkelBoruff
KayMerkelBoruff

When 50% DC, CEOs, lobbyists, doctors, & journalists are women, positive change will happen; & we'll have more time to write, read, shop, & dream.

ValNostdahl
ValNostdahl

senator Collins is the extreme right that has formed the paea, destroying the USPS, and you call this adolt behavior, I call it image making and not taking responsibility for destroying the biggest union, in the USA, Trying to take down the Constitution by destroying the USPS.

CerebralSmartie
CerebralSmartie

It was so important that the shutdown ended and it was great to give recognition to those who ended it. The government shutdown must not happen again. What can be done to prevent it? Ladies and gents, please step forward. Do something to prevent this from happening again. Please.

Handswd
Handswd

Are you kidding me? Hillary Clinton should be in jail! She lied to Congress. Twice in her career. She lied about Benghazi. How dare her say the things she says! People are saying they would vote for her for president! In Chris Mattews interview you started talking about all her accomplishments when she was responsible for all those deaths! How can you trust anyone who would cheat on their spouse or better yet fall back in the shadows while her husband screws his interns and lies about it. If she would lie to her husband she wouldn't thing twice about lying to us and you want her to be president. 

People, this is why we are 17 trillion dollars in debt! 650 million to build a website that is a piece of crap! Are you

Next up Nancy Pelosi. She has made Millions and Millions on voting in Congress on investments she and her husband have. She is making Obama Care sound like its working. They bank on us to believe this crap. They think we are stupid and maybe we are. We hear both sides, we argue our points against the other side, they laugh all the way to the bank! Look at how much wealth that has been created by the people in our government. Look at where they started and where they are now.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Obama Care is the biggest blunder (and I really wanted to use the "F" here) of all time. There is no part on Obama Care that works. Again, 650 Million dollars! We should march on Washington and relieve these people of office. ALL OF THEM!

People you need to wake up and quit being blindly lead by these people! All of our government is corrupt. The group on the left as well as the right are puppets and we are losing this country. Look at how our news and our media report. 

I challenge all of you to take your political glasses off and look at how they are running this country and tell me honestly they have yours and my best interests at heart! I want you to look at both sides (with common sense) and tell me you like where we are headed as a country. At this rate I see us folding in a few year. A House divided will not stand!

kva
kva

GO WOMEN! While I like to avoid saying anything that suggests men are one way and women are another, it's true that there are many activities in which one gender tends to perform better than the other. That means that wherever women are underrepresented, so are their skills. A team that has a diverse mix of thinkers (concrete and abstract), decision makers (futuristic and action-oriented), negotiators (idealists and pragmatists), and workers (extraverted and introverted) will largely avoid blind spots and hang-ups like those that caused the shutdown and debt crisis. Most of humanity seems to work better than Congress right now - perhaps that's because nearly everywhere else, 50% of the population is female.

FeralOne
FeralOne

Huh?   My congresswoman is Vicky Hartzler, and she's one of the Tea Party crazies. And she's also a hypocrite thief because she's received $800,000 in farm subsidies over the years. 

I don't think having a vagina means you automatically an adult, unfortunately.   If it did, it would make choosing the best candidate much easier.

12735278
12735278

This article is typical liberal trash one might expect from the likes of this magazine.  Exactly what has the Senate accomplished this year?  How many appropriation bills have they passed.  If they had been doing their job and passing the House approriations or conferencing over their own versions the partial shut down would have been much milder.

guguelmail
guguelmail

Yet another feminist headline in Time (common theme: "women are better than men", so much for equality).

jhoughton1
jhoughton1

The only people who give two hoots about the medical-device tax are the ultra-wealthy owners of medical-device companies.  It is not "unpopular" by any stretch.

Ocsicnarf
Ocsicnarf

Perhaps it is not relevant to be man or woman as regards politics, but I praise those women who were more sensible than other women and men alike.

mary.waterton
mary.waterton

What drivel! Within the House & Senate collectively there were equal numbers of women for and against Obamacare, for and against raising the debt ceiling, for and against balancing the budget, etc.

Being female does not give one an edge on morality, honesty or civility. It's just more ear trash from the political activist news journalists.

observer101
observer101

We don't need to fight over this. Men call women names. Women call men names. In my few years on this earth, I'm realizing we're more alike that not. There are women who are really cruel and there are men who are cruel too. I think the reason why men are put more in the spotlight is because in today's society and much of history's society, they had more power. So when they were cruel, it wreaked to a certain extent more havoc than if women were just as cruel. And hence, it was considered more cruel. But look at today, women have more power and we can see that they can be just as cruel. Look at abortion. We're all the same. With the same ability to be cruel and narcissistic. And the same ability to be caring. 

mcdeutschma
mcdeutschma

I read this article in my print version of Time. I was encouraged by this story and uplifted by what women are doing in Washington. Then I turned to the last page of the story and was faced with an advertisement what said, "Princess Today. Prom Queen Tomorrow" over the photo of a little girl. 

We're not going to get anywhere with advertisements like this. 

geronimox
geronimox

"Women, especially younger women look to government as their Daddy, their husband, and their lover. Why else would so many of them vote so stupidly for faceless, un-named others to take care of them rather than wanting Freedom to take care of themselves?"  --kestrel27 (posted below)

You are right.  Back in the '70s, there was a popular singles bar in Houston called "Daddy's Money".  The young women came there in droves, because the name of it appealed to them.  And these were mostly women who had the benefit of being raised by real daddies with real money.  Now that they are so influential in politics, the women--even those without real daddies with real money--see the government, even when it is borrowing completely beyond its means, as their Daddy.  And the borrowing doesn't bother them--after all, Daddy will clear up the bill on their credit card.  All they have to do is snuggle up to him and ask him real nice.

Factsseeker
Factsseeker

@RyanMarcoux @yourmother Ryan, have you ever worked in female dominated enviroments such as nursing ? It does not sound like you have sufficient experience in the real world. To claim that women are "simply more socially aware and connected to each human functioning within the system" is just based on sentimentality. There is no objective research that bears that out. Women on average are just as self-centred and unconnected as men. Both males and females have enormous in-group variation. You attitude demonizes all men (except very enlightened ones like yourself, of course).

yourmother
yourmother

@author :  Fucck you for running feminist propoganda.

DevilsAdvocate
DevilsAdvocate

My gosh. Voices of reason. You go ladies. I think it would be nice if the media would publish more articles of this nature as they would certainly help in my decision of whom to vote for in coming elections.

Ah well, time for my meds now.

Sonmi-451
Sonmi-451

Glad to know that the ladies are making some effort. 

CedarCat
CedarCat

So choice is partisan and off-limits as a topic while gun control is somehow deemed worthy? That is crazy in a women's group.

Glad to see the women getting together and doing their jobs (a d those of their male colleagues too from the looks of it)

XiraArien1
XiraArien1

Sexist piece designed to push women up and men down.


For every 2 men who graduate college, 3 women do.

Women now out earn men in the younger age bracket. (22-30)

There are almost 10 men in jail for every women, despite not committing much more of the crime.

If a 14 year old girl and a 14 year old boy have s--, the boy is the one listed as a s-- offender.

There are places in this country where 1/3 of the men are ineligible to vote because they are felons.

Women get the child in any divorce situation by default, and can usually get most of the money and a paycheck too.

If a woman doesn't want a child, she can abort it. If a man doesn't want a child, he has no say in the matter and the government will put him in jail if he doesn't submit to being used as an ATM for 18 years.

Women won. It's time to help out the men, who are the ones at real disadvantage today.

Factsseeker
Factsseeker

Gender politics seems to be regressing at an increasingly rapid pace. Anybody who has worked with both males and females knows that this mythical gender superiority is based on a convenient stereotype which is completely untrue. There are sensitive responsible women and there are cruel egotistical ruthless women. There are also decent, sensitive and responsible men and there are also male psychopaths and deviants. The within group variations are quite similar. Some opinion writers love writing articles based on self-serving research results to promote the stereotype that demonizes men. Stereotyping is both cruel and short-sighted. Experience informs that these prejudiced persons are usually bored, immature individuals who are unhappy and frustrated with their own lives.

loanfraudvictim
loanfraudvictim

Seriously.  I must have been hanging around with a wrong group of people.  I have met more women who can't wait to flounder with their arrogance and ignorance.  They are absolutely, positively assertive about their "talents" which constantly warrant disastrous results. 

IanBortner
IanBortner

NOBODY in DC represents the common people.  It is long past time to purify this cesspool of filth and treason.  Down with the DC traitors!  Hang the tyrants! 

whiteathame
whiteathame

Valuable article.  Apparently, the ladies can get things done while the men look for ways to prevent things from happening.

jason024
jason024

@12735278 Uh they tried conferencing with the GOP House NINETEEN TIMES......

Openminded1
Openminded1

@guguelmail In some ways they are better in others not so much. they do have certain qualities.

goblue562
goblue562

@jhoughton1 Where did you get the idea that all owners of medical device companies are ultra-wealthy?

PacificSage
PacificSage

@mary.waterton

Being female does not give one an edge on morality, honesty or civility? You ARE speaking only for yourself? Right??


FeralOne
FeralOne

@observer101   Sorry, but I don't think abortion is cruel.  Aborting a eight-week old embryo with the nervous system of a goldfish is not cruelty.

RyanMarcoux
RyanMarcoux

@yourmother I felt the same way you, and apparently many people reading this article did, at first. Honestly, I am a man, and I am also a feminist; however, I try to keep a careful eye out for bias. On gut reaction, I thought "Wow...this article is just trying to make women look quite perfect and superior, isn't it?". But then I gave it more thought and that conclusion doesn't seem quite right.

The article seems to be careful not to say that women are superior leaders by merit of simply being women. Rather, it mentions circumstance, experiences, context, history, etc. in passing, to suggest that they are simply more socially aware and connected to each human functioning within the system (because of those factors playing on them).

The experience of being opressed, or perception of one's capacity to be opressed, can serve to created more connected individuals who better understand how to get along and improve society. This should work the same for men as women. If we can identify a group more opressed, we might find yet better leadership there.

TakingUpSpace
TakingUpSpace

@XiraArien1 You pointed out differences in how the sexes are treated in both the world of work and the world of children.

In the former, men's dominance is ending -- an ideological feminist goal -- and in the latter, women still have dominance -- an ideological feminist goal.

Re: "it's time to help out the men"

The following will give you a good idea where else men need help. CedarCat should be sitting down when she reads it:

“The Doctrinaire Institute for Women's Policy Research: A Comprehensive Look at Gender Equality”

http://malemattersusa.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/the-doctrinaire-institute-for-womens-policy-research/



CedarCat
CedarCat

Oh the poor men. Make an effort and stop whining.

guguelmail
guguelmail

@goblue562 @guguelmail Typical feminist reply. Instead of an argument, a personal attack. Fortunately we are starting to realize these manipulatory tactics.

jhoughton1
jhoughton1

@goblue562 I never say "all" about anything.  But do a little research.  Sure, there are mom 'n pop medtech companies -- whose most cherished dreams involve being bought out by one of the big, publicly traded outfits that pay their CEO's like kings and pay regular dividends to their investors. It's well-known in the investing community as a highly-profitable industry. The fast growers don't necessarily pay dividends...yet. But as an industry, they are fighting this piddling tax because the big guys make enough that it matters. The lobbying money (lots of it) doesn't come from the mom 'n pops.

robert596
robert596

@RyanMarcoux @yourmother Women were never oppressed. The only ones that felt oppressed were the feminists. Women (in general) were fine with their role in society. It was only a small group of women that wanted the same rights as men. The same thing is happening now with gay marriage. It's only a very small percentage of our population that is demanding gay marriage. You can't say that men are oppressed since they can't marry men. Women are not oppressed...feminists are oppressed.

yourmother
yourmother

@RyanMarcoux @yourmotherThank you for taking time to read my comment.  I would urge you to think more about it and subtle indicators thrown by author.  If article is about women who are "tagged" superior to men in DC, why there is link for video with "Do women make better traders than men ? "  Does author even understand that trading involves inherent risk and one's ability to mitigate risk and then en-cash the opportunity solely based on skill, experience irrespective of gender ?  In which world does author live ?


It is so shameful that article is published on time.com and running on front page of google news.  I feel very sorry for america and all those supporting this article.  I am very happy today I declined american citizenship offer twice.

FeralOne
FeralOne

@yourmother @whiteathame   First can I step on your wiener?   That's what I like to do in bed, step on wieners.  So much fun.

Then we'll get out the ball gag.  C'mon, you know you want it, yourmother.

guguelmail
guguelmail

@jacquesjd3 @guguelmail A huge generalisation would have been "all feminist replies": "Typical feminist reply" is perfectly acceptable. Secondly, you are also making a personal attack, which proves my point. Thanks.

jacquesjd3
jacquesjd3

@guguelmail Yes, we should definitely listen to the guy that also just made huge generalizations with "typical feminist reply".  What a toolbag.


Openminded1
Openminded1

@guguelmail @Openminded1 It is not morally wrong to say that or most things. its called freedom of speech. And yes men are better at somethings that women will never excel at.

Hollywooddeed
Hollywooddeed

@robert596  And the irony of your post, Mr. robert596, went right over your pointy little head.

Openminded1
Openminded1

@yourmother @RyanMarcoux Then I hope you do not live in the U.S>, because you are the first person I have ever heard that declined american citizenship . Been denied yes declined citizenship very rare. Why would it be offered to you anyway?