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Women are not the only adults in Washington

October 19, 2013, at 8:52 PM

It started with an article on TIME.com by Jay Newton Small, "In Shutdown, Women are the Only Adults Left." There are 20 women in the Senate, the most ever, and during the government shutdown, their floor speeches were somewhat less partisan and more "Can't-We-Just." Several women rights' groups, like EMILY's List, picked up the story for use in fundraising.

The Can't We Just speech is very easy to give. First, note how Americans mistrust their government. Then, assert that Americans dislike partisanship. Then, give an example of how you've worked with someone from across the aisle before. Finally, ask why "can't we just" set aside partisan differences and work towards a common goal and agree to disagree and be civil, among other content-free formulations. Since it's an easy speech to give, it's also among the least constructive. Women don't tend to give these speeches more than men. It's just that women are less instinctively partisan, or less liable to initiative a conflict, or more caring, than men. Those positive stereotypes might be comforting, but they are, simply, groundless. Until women become power-brokers in Congress, and I really do want them to become power-brokers in Congress, there is no way to assess whether simply being a woman makes one a better, more effective legislator for our times without resorting to barely-post-Victorian era notions of what women have than men lack.

The idea that women were the only adults in the shutdown is attractive. But it ain't so. One, Republicans and Democrats were not equally childish in this debacle, something that Republicans themselves recognize. Two, Democratic leaders and the White House had to be hard-headed and obstinate in order to force the House Republicans to give up and to re-open the government. Those childlike qualities were absolutely essential. Sadly, women did not play a significant role in the government shutdown. Democratic Sen. Patty Murray's role will be very important going forward, but that's because she's proven herself indispensable on budget matters and not because she is a woman. In the House, Rep. Michele Bachmann had perhaps the biggest megaphone of any woman in Washington during the shutdown, and she wasn't on the side of the angels here.

The women in the U.S. Senate are incredible people, but it's patronizing to say that they are even more special than their male counterparts because they are women. No doubt the economic and social glass ceilings that women confront on the ladder to power were constituent factors in their political development, but no more so than where they grew up, who mentored them, what jobs they took before Congress, and what party they belong to.

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