When President Trump tried to knock down a powerful female cable news host as a dumb, vanity-filled figure last week, it was one of the more overt displays of sexism in politics in years.
But women in Washington have been living with less-overt gender-derived challenges to their authority long before Trump came along, as underscored by a new report from the Center for American Women in Politics and Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
Researchers interviewed 83 out of 108 women serving in Congress in 2015-2016 about how they see their roles as policymakers and role models and through the prism of their gender. There are plenty of positives to being a woman in elected office right now, lawmakers said, but their challenges are age-old: They have to work harder than men to be seen as equal.
A few of the strikingly candid comments lawmakers made in the report:
“My experience has been, and sadly I think this is still true today, that when a woman is elected to the Senate, she still has to prove that she belongs there, whereas when a man is elected to the Senate, it’s assumed that he belongs here. I will say once you pass that first test … then you’re a member of the club. But I think there still is a barrier that men don’t face, and I think that’s true of Democratic women as well as Republican women.” — Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)
“It’s people sort of thinking you can’t govern or be in charge, even though you can.” — Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
“People are not used to seeing women in these positions. So we have to work twice as hard to prove ourselves.” — Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.)
“[S]ome conservative men do not view women as full and equal partners in the workplace. And I know for some men, that is never going to change. So I don’t look at it and say it is a stumbling block. I recognize it and I do my part to change their attitude every day by doing a very good job of what is put in front of me to do.” — Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.)
“Women still have to prove their competency. … You need to know more than your male colleagues and even some of your female colleagues. … Women have to work harder. That is still very much the case here. And no matter how many times that you demonstrate that you [are competent, you have] to continue to demonstrate it.” — Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.)
“I think that constantly women have to keep proving themselves, and I don’t know when that will end.” — Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.)
“[Congressmen] put the suit on … and get in front of a microphone and debate an issue. When we do it, it’s, ‘Wow, what’s that all about? She’s got nice shoes on.’ ” — former representative Renee L. Ellmers (R-N.C.)
“They still are more judgmental about women’s appearance than male appearance, [and these comments] are still … in abundant supply.” — Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.)
“I think in a lot of topics [women] are somewhat discounited. I mean, I’m sure there are many times when I raise my hand to speak on the agriculture committee and take a particular point of view. People are kind of like, ‘What does she know about it?’ Maybe they wouldn’t feel that way exactly if I was a male.” — Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine)
“I think the biggest challenge for a woman is not to be kind of painted into a corner of, okay, so you’re a woman, so you can care about these issues that are women’s issues.” — Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.)
These interviews were conducted before Trump was elected. It’s safe to say that having a president who consistently tries to undercut women by leveling them to a bag of emotions and attractiveness hasn’t improved the environment these lawmakers must push back against every day.
In fact, retiring Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) said as much:
This is not okay. As a female in politics I am often criticized for my looks. We should be working to empower women. https://t.co/sV6WDE0EUD
— Lynn Jenkins (@RepLynnJenkins) June 29, 2017
But here’s the optimistic part of our story. These same women say that, yes, they have to work harder than men to effect public policy, but it’s working. The congresswomen near-universally said they felt their voices mattered and that they are able to advocate for perspectives and people that might not otherwise have had a say.
Former representative Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) shared a story of how she and her Republican female colleagues helped get federal funding for a women’s museum in D.C. by advocating for it: “We have to tell the men why this is important,” she said.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who was elected in 2012 as one of the first female veterans to serve in Congress, said she’s changing the way lawmakers view women in the military: “Many of my colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee have not served in the military, and some have misguided views about women in the military that don’t reflect the realities of the contributions women have been making for generations.”
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) said her compromise-driven mind-set (a feature many women in this report highlighted as an asset for them) helps her leverage power in her committee: “When they can’t get something like the Export-Import Bank, for example, out of the committee because of their chairman’s ideological views … then they have to sneak, tiptoe behind and come up with a strategy, and they look for people, they know that I’m there.”
Bottom line: Yeah, it can be tough being a woman in politics. But most of women at the highest level of politics say the benefits outweigh the costs, said one of the report’s authors, Kelly Dittmar of Rutgers University.
Dittmar thinks — hopes — that won’t change even if, in 2017, some of the potential challenges to being a woman in power are heightened by the president himself.
Correction: This post originally misstated how many female members of Congress the report interviewed.
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