Kay Hagan just wanted to swim. It was late 2008, and the Democrat was newly arrived on Capitol Hill as North Carolina’s junior senator-elect. But Hagan was told that the Senate pool was males-only. Why? Because some of the male senators liked to swim naked.
It took an intervention by Senator Chuck Schumer, head of the Rules Committee, to put a stop to the practice, but even then “it was a fight,” remembers pollster Celinda Lake, who heard about the incident when the pool revolt was the talk among Washington women.
The pool wasn’t the only Senate facility apparently stuck in the Dark Ages. The restroom closest to the Senate floor that was set aside for women senators had only two stalls. By 2013, with 20 women in the Senate, restroom traffic jams were commonplace, forcing some of the female senators to traipse to a first-floor restroom far from the chamber. Two additional stalls, an extra sink and more storage space were added in the fall of 2013, after several female senators raised the issue publicly.
The great potty controversy received news coverage in both the Washington Post and the New York Times, where the female senators were reduced to raving perkily about their new facilities. “We’re even going to have a window,” New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a former governor and foreign policy specialist, was quoted as enthusing.
Yet some indignities have nothing to do with a lack of accommodations.
Debbie Stabenow, a veteran lawmaker, recalls meeting with a senior agricultural lobbyist several years ago, when she was chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee and shepherding the massive farm bill.
As they were talking in her office, the lobbyist, an older man, reached over and patted her hand. “I know it’s going to be tough,” he assured her, “but you’ll do the best you can.”
“My blood pressure went up about 20 points,” Stabenow remembers, tension rising even now, long after the farm bill made it through to passage.
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. For decades in the 20th century after women first joined, many male senators were hardly more than corrupt frat boys with floor privileges, reeking of alcohol and making little secret of their sexual dalliances with constituents, employees and any other hapless subordinate female they could grab. But perhaps more striking is what I found after interviewing dozens of women senators, former senators and their aides over the past several months: Even today, the women of the Senate are confronted with a kind of floating, often subtle, but corrosive sexism, a sense of not belonging that is both pervasive and so counter to the narrative of real, if stubbornly slow, progress that many are reluctant to acknowledge this persistent secret.
A few months ago, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand published a memoir, Off the Sidelines, in which she revealed that after she went on a diet and lost 50 pounds, one of her “favorite older members of the Senate”—later reported to be the late Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye—approached her from behind, “squeezed my waist, and said, ‘Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby!’” Gillibrand’s memoir sparked a kind of public outrage that it might not have a few decades ago. But to many of the women senators I spoke with, Gillibrand’s story is so run-of-the mill that they marvel she considered it worthy of mention. “People have commented on my looks,” says Kay Bailey Hutchison, the retired Republican from Texas. “I just think that there are some things you just ought to brush off.”
Liza Mundy, a contributing editor at Politico Magazine, is program director at the New America Foundation and the author, most recently, of The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Sex, Love, and Family.