Why Congress Remains Hostile to Women

The new rule allowing babies onto the Senate floor is a step in the right direction, but nonetheless underscores Congress’s tradition-loving, change-phobic culture.

Senator Tammy Duckworth carries her baby Maile Pearl Bowlsbey after they went to the Senate floor to vote on April 19, 2018. (Alex Brandon / AP)

Poor Orrin Hatch. The guy makes one crack about swarms of infants overrunning the Senate, and suddenly he’s the laughingstock of Twitter.

“But what if there are 10 babies on the floor of the Senate?” the Utah Republican mused last week, as senators dealt with a resolution allowing lawmakers to bring their offspring, aged one year or younger, onto the floor.

The resolution was being pushed by Maile Pearl Bowlsbey—or, more accurately, by her mom, Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth. On April 9, Duckworth became the first sitting U.S. senator to give birth. The following week, she needed to be on the floor to cast a vote, and she wanted to keep wee Maile close at hand. (Ah, doting parents.) To accommodate Duckworth, the Senate first had to relax its rules, which it did on Wednesday by unanimous consent.

When Maile made her debut Thursday (duckie-print onesie, pink cap, aqua sweater), lawmakers cooed and clucked. Even Mitch McConnell reportedly cracked a smile. But make no mistake: This historic moment took some doing. Unanimous consent aside, there were months of negotiations and enduring apprehension over the rule change, especially among—how to put this delicately—some of the more mature lawmakers. A few voiced their skepticism publicly, others more privately. Amy Klobuchar, who, as ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, had been asked by Duckworth months ago to arrange the change, acknowledged after the vote that, for weeks and weeks, she had been fielding colleagues’ concerns about everything from breastfeeding to poopy nappies.

But it was Hatch who caught the ruthless eye of Twitter and promptly took a beating. Sample slams: “Today @senorrinhatch was concerned what would happen if there were 10 babies on the Senate floor. But really, don’t we know what that looks like?” Or, even more personally, “Someone needs to tell @senorrinhatch that HE is one of MANY babies on the senate floor crying and throwing tantrums on a daily basis.” Things got so hot that the Utah press wound up covering the kerfuffle.

The senator’s office insisted he’d been joking. (Of course a man with 14 grandkids and 23 great-grandkids values family.) No matter. His remark was simply too perfect, too irresistibly fusty not to mock—especially coming from the longest-serving and third-oldest senator. With one fuddy-duddyish query, Hatch neatly captured the tradition-obsessed, change-phobic, hidebound culture of the Senate—and to some degree all of Congress—and how that culture so often has been less-than-welcoming to its female members in particular.

Congress runs on tradition. And, at 220-plus years old, the bulk of its customs and practices were founded by men with the rights and privileges of male members in mind. As women have ever-so-slowly wormed their way into the club, they’ve had to drag the institution kicking and screaming into the present (much less the future) to carve out even minimal space for themselves. Forget babies on the floor; until 2011, female congresswomen didn’t have a restroom close to the House floor. Until 1962, they didn’t have a restroom in the Capitol at all. Which sounds absurdly scandalous until you consider that, as of 1962, there had been only 10 female senators ever—a scandal on a completely different scale.

As a refresher on exactly how behind the curve Congress can be, let’s pick on Hatch a bit more. When the senator first assumed office in 1977, there were zero women serving in the chamber. (Eleven had preceded him, and three arrived the following year, though only one, Nancy Kassebaum, had been elected to a full term.) Women did not wear pants on the Senate floor, an unofficial prohibition that did not fall until 1993. (In the edgier House, the barrier had been broken in 1969 by Representative Charlotte Reid—though female members continued to be discouraged from such indecorous behavior for years to come.) Women were not allowed to use the House gym. (Although, to be fair, since 1965 they’d had access to a separate, vastly inferior Women’s Health Facility.) The gym at last went co-ed in 1985, thanks to a crusade by then-Representative Barbara Boxer. (She even composed a rallying song for the cause, set to the tune of “Has Anybody Seen My Gal.”) It was 2009, however, before women could use the swimming pool. Why? Because certain male members didn’t want to give up swimming in the buff.

Back to the subject of babies, it was three decades after Hatch arrived before either the Senate (2006) or House (2007) installed lactation facilities in their office buildings. And it would be another decade still before, in the summer of 2017, the women of the House launched “Sleeveless Friday” to protest the prohibition on bare arms in the chamber and the speaker’s lobby.

Now, to be fair, the congressional dress code is a drag for all. Just as women cannot go sleeveless or wear open-toed shoes, men must wear jackets and ties.  (In the wake of The Great Sleeveless Uprising, Speaker Paul Ryan vowed to revisit the rules.)

But the larger point remains: Progress tends to come slowly to the Hill—if at all. And the stakes are often far higher than sartorial decorum. Just look at how ploddingly Congress is moving to address its dirty little sexual-harassment problem. It’s not that most members are defenders of creepiness and predation. It’s more that, while happy to push legislation mucking around in the lives of others, they are epic foot-draggers on anything that impacts their own institution.

Which is a far bigger issue than the Capitol’s enduring restroom gender gap or even the threat of dirty diapers. For a group with an approval rating hovering around that of drug traffickers, you’d think Congress would be eager to show how in touch it is with the evolving issues confronting regular Americans. Instead, it too often clings to its petty privileges and archaic customs, sending precisely the opposite message.

Klobuchar nodded to this awkward reality in a Thursday radio interview with Here & Now:

The argument we want to make is, this isn’t just about these hundred people and our archaic rules and a weird work schedule, where you work often at two in the morning. But what this is about is changing workplaces across America in terms of work-family leave and child care. And if we can’t make this minor rule change in the Senate, how are we going to change the law to match a lot of other industrialized nations, where we actually have good child care policies and work-family leave?

How, indeed? As dysfunctional as Congress has become, 10 babies on the Senate floor might be as good a place as any to start.