It’s not often talked about, but the Senate, more than any other body in Washington, remains stubbornly rooted in an earlier time. The fact of being a woman at any level is an added burden, in a way you don’t often see anymore. Some vestigial notion of southern gentility, along with the advanced years and feudal powers of its senior members, fosters an atmosphere of sexism that is still passed off as “courtliness” or “fondness for the traditions of the Senate.” Some female staffers ruefully call it “the last plantation.” Clinton’s arrival has had a curious effect.
Until he was deposed in 2002 as majority leader, Trent Lott favored a lipstick-and-skirt dress code. Women still must cover their blouses with jackets in order to set foot on the Senate floor. (There was a big fuss this summer about whether they could wear open-toed shoes.) Far from being just quaint notions, these outdated standards of decorum are enforced by “bench ladies,” who are stationed on the floor. Staffers call them the “SS guards” behind their backs.
These indignities reach every level. Male senators have always had access to a private restroom just off the Senate floor. But for decades, the few women senators had to walk down two floors to use a public restroom. On certain committees, such as Armed Services—of which Clinton is a member—this culture is said to be particularly intense. One veteran female committee aide said that for years certain lobbyists—retired military types with a Tailhook attitude toward gender differences—refused even to speak to her.
Years of accumulated resentments over such slights have helped form one very significant dimension of Clinton’s strong working relationships in the Senate: her popularity among female staff members—even many Republicans—is almost universal. Something entirely unexpected happened as I went around inquiring about her working habits. Republican women, who are supposed to despise Clinton by reflex, would first describe seething as they sat behind their boss at some hearing or other and watched Clinton charm whichever beacon of conservatism was her target. But many eventually went on to confess a grudging admiration for her, for reasons that initially struck me as bizarre. “She wore slacks to her swearing-in ceremony,” one such staffer marveled. “I mean, you just don’t do that in the Senate.” Her point was that Clinton has flourished in the male-dominated milieu without making the normal concessions demanded of women, and has done so—this is important if you’re a Republican—without making a big feminist stink about it.
But Clinton hasn’t so much exploded gender stereotypes as subtly exploited them. She has completely erased from her public persona any resentment she may still feel at her treatment during the White House years. When senators appear together at a press conference it is often possible to make out, just at the moment things are really getting under way, a minuet taking place—the statesmanlike jockeying for primacy of position before the cameras. Clinton, as fellow senators admiringly pointed out to me, is the only one who routinely steps backward and defers to her colleagues.
History having cast Clinton as aloof and hard-edged, it was no accident that early reports of her private meetings with her new colleagues often included revelatory details that cut against character type, such as her offering to pour coffee for her male seniors. As one of her (male) aides bragged, “You don’t expect the first lady of the United States to ask if you want two lumps of sugar.” In submitting to the institutional culture, though, Clinton has sublimated her power drive, not denied it.