A Woman's Place Is Making Washington Work

We have more women in Congress and so there's an opportunity for the dynamics of Washington politics to change.

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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, center, talks with, from left, Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen.. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Collins, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R- Alaska, and Sen. John McCain, R- Ariz., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Oct. 11, 2013. House Republicans are offering to pass legislation to avert a default and end the 11-day partial government shutdown as part of a framework that would include cuts in benefit programs, officials said Friday.

When Washington was faced with a crisis in years past, the so-called "greybeards" would inevitably come in and try to solve it. These were typically veteran lawmakers or advisers, people who had seen in the past what had worked and what had not, and knew the consequences of doing nothing at all. They also, by definition, tended to be men.

What's notable in the bickering over who's-more-to-blame-Republicans-or-Democrats is the fact that party ID was only part of it. It was the women – people like GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland – who helped bring the country back from fiscal disaster. And it's not an accident.

We can accept the basic argument that men and women are equal and should have equal opportunity, but men and women are not the same. Some of it is nature and some of it nurture – and it is likely the second factor that makes women better positioned to heal the Capitol. Yes, it's a broad generalization, but the women on the Hill are more relationship-oriented, and look for human connections even with people with whom they disagree. Ayotte is the only Republican in all all-female New Hampshire delegation to Congress, but she works with (and gets along with) her Senate colleague, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. Her mother knows House member Annie Custer, Ayotte has noted, and the GOP senator knows the other representative Carol Shea-Porter from Granite State days. Ayotte's political practice may not be to vote with her Democratic colleagues, but her inclination is to talk to them and get along with them.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Many of the women on the Hill are mothers, which may drive the dynamic as well. When you've spent time trying to keep two preteens from killing each other before they get on the school bus in the morning, you become a natural peace-maker. That doesn't mean peace at any cost. But it means they look for a way to a solution, instead of a way to prove they're the biggest or strongest or scariest bully in the schoolyard.

Even after the 1992 elections (the so-called "Year of the Woman"), female lawmakers talked about how things had changed in committee meetings as more women took seats on the panels. The men would come to meetings with an idea. They would fight for their ideas, competing with other lawmakers to win. They might be gracious upon losing, but their instinct was to compete. The women, meanwhile, would come in and say – this is my idea. What's your idea? And they would try to put them together into one big idea. The men, a female lawmaker told me back then, had a hard time getting their heads around that approach, because they had been trained to fight to victory.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

We have more women now (especially in the Senate), and so there's an opportunity for the dynamics to change. It's not a function of being a moderate. Except for Collins, the women who pursued a deal on the government funding and debt ceiling package are solid liberals or conservatives. It's just that they go into negotiations with the idea of finding a solution, instead of just beating the other guy or gal for its own sake. Michele Bachmann is a tea party favorite and not known as a deal-maker. But still, her determination to achieve a certain political or policy goal – however controversial that might be – seems rooted in the policy itself, as opposed to a desire to prove her personal dominance over her colleagues.

The answer, then, could be to just elect more women (and that's a good goal, considering women are a bare majority of the population but a small fraction of senators and representatives). But it would be better if we stopped thinking that so-called "female" characteristics – compassion, peace-making, the willingness to compromise and the willingness to put someone else's needs above your own – are by definition weak. The problem on the Hill isn't that we've lost a lot of moderates. It's that we have too many people who think it's stronger, and better, not to give in on anything. It's not just the gender makeup we need to change in Washington. It's the gender-based mindset.

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