Women of Congress Focus on Bipartisanship

Congressional Caucus for Women focuses on issues rather than bitter presidential contest.

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To Freud's famous question—What does a woman want?—female members of the House of Representatives gave an answer Wednesday, with clarity and conviction. The responses, courtesy of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues, came during an annual dinner celebrating the 73 women of the House: 53 Democrats and 20 Republicans.

On their agenda: battling heart disease in women, reducing deaths during childbirth, combating human trafficking and sexual and domestic violence, tackling the backlog of DNA evidence in rape cases, and supporting women in the military on a variety of issues from multiple deployments to maternal leave to sexual harassment. Other priorities: increasing the number of women who enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and math; bolstering self-esteem among girls on issues related to body image and obesity; and improving the well-being of women in the developing world. A key legislative aim is passage of H.R. 1014, the Heart for Women Act, which seeks to improve the diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular illness among women.

At least 18 women who serve in the House were on hand for Wednesday night's dinner in the East Hall of Union Station. More than 300 women attended the dinner, which was hosted by Women's Policy Inc., a nonprofit that supports the work of the caucus..

The women's caucus dates to 1977, when a small, bipartisan group gathered in the Capitol to talk about the problem of spousal abuse, organizers said. The House's female members peaked at 74 in 2007; all but one, Virginia Republican Jo Ann Davis, who died last year, belonged to the women's caucus, said Emily Kryder, spokeswoman for California Democrat Lois Capps. Capps, with Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington State, cochairs the caucus.

Bipartisanship was the tenor of the night, despite differences of party, not to mention intraparty disagreements on presidential picks. "We belong to both parties, but we don't pay attention," House Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas observed, "because we don't let men boss us." So while the crowd was mixed—Rodgers has endorsed John McCain; Nita Lowey of New York is behind Hillary Clinton, and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois is backing Barack Obama—there were no sharp elbows.

Capps, who is neutral as the Democratic primaries play out, said the bonds between female lawmakers sometimes transcend politics and the issues of the day. In a tribute to retiring House Republican Deborah Pryce of Ohio, Capps noted that both she and Pryce had lost daughters to cancer and had found comfort from one another, if only from a hug. "Most people," Capps remarked, "don't realize how close we become, as sisters in Congress."