House is slowly shedding its ‘boys club’ reputation

Nov 27, 2019
In The News

Rep. Carolyn Maloney was surprised when, in 1993 and new to Congress, she first strolled into a hearing room and saw the walls lined with all-male portraits.

“I remember looking at the walls and saying, ‘Where are all the women?’ And they told me, ‘Because women haven’t been chairs of committees,’” the New York Democrat said in an interview.

Nearly three decades later, Maloney is heading the powerful House Oversight Committee. Her election to the post last week made her the 26th woman to ever chair a committee in the House and the sixth woman to lead one of the 20 standing House committees in a single Congress — a record in the 231 years of the chamber’s existence. Previously, the most women to chair committees was four.

It’s yet another small crack in the glass ceiling, particularly for Democrats, and Nancy Pelosi, who is on her second tour as the first woman speaker. Pelosi now counts nearly a dozen women in her inner circle and welcomed her largest-ever female class last fall, further evidence that the House is slowly shedding its centuries-old “boys club” reputation.

Leading a major committee comes with enormous clout: agenda-setting power, the ear of the speaker and majority leader and a soapbox for the national press.

But it also comes with what’s considered the true power in Washington: A multimillion dollar budget that allows them to hire dozens of staff who can greatly expand the scope of that lawmaker’s influence on Capitol Hill.

“Literally, we’ve paid our dues,” House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said in an interview.

Waters first joined the panel, then called the House Banking Committee, when it was far from a plum assignment. That committee is now one of the most powerful in the House, with jurisdiction over Wall Street, banking and even a role in the ongoing impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump.

“Nobody wanted to serve on it. And we stayed, and we worked,” Waters said of the committee she now leads. "Women chairing committees, important committees, is an important advancement for all of us.”

Besides Maloney and Waters, there is Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey; Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren; Science, Space and Technology Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson; and Small Business Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez.

Rep. Kathy Castor also leads the House Select Committee on Climate Change, a temporary panel that Pelosi restarted last year.

The 2018 midterms — dubbed another “Year of the Woman” for Democrats — resulted in 36 new congresswomen as part of the most diverse freshman class ever. Many had been driven to run by Trump’s election, helping grow the ranks of Democratic women in the House to 89.

The Democrats’ success of that election cycle translated to a stark power shift in the House: Out of the 18 freshman lawmakers tapped to lead subcommittees, 10 are women.

Three decades after a woman was first elected to a House leadership position, Pelosi’s deputies are nearly equally split along gender lines. That includes Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Policy and Communications Committee Co-Chair Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.).

“In the House Democratic Caucus, women not only have a seat at the table, but a seat at the head of the table,” Pelosi said in a statement to POLITICO. “With gavels in their hands, they are changing the face of our representation and the future of our nation.”

But there’s also been a more subtle shift in the behavior of lawmakers who serve in Congress. There’s less late night cigars and drinks in the Appropriations suite behind closed doors, and more clusters of lawmakers sharing cellphone videos of their kids in between chatting about committee work.

Yet despite the changes in the culture of Congress, there are still complaints that fall along gender lines, lawmakers and aides say: Some of the female freshmen lobbied unsuccessfully this fall to make the House’s weekly schedule easier on moms serving in Congress.

And overall, women are still vastly outnumbered, making up less than a quarter of the House. The gap is even starker in the House GOP Conference, where only 13 women serve in office even as high-ranking women like Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican, take on key leadership roles.

Most of the House’s current chairwomen first arrived in Washington when simply being a woman stood out.

Maloney was first elected in the 1992 “Year of the Woman,” a wave election that sent more new women to Congress than in any previous decade. Since then, she’s led the push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, commissioned a landmark study on the pay gap, and once walked out in protest of a GOP birth control hearing featuring an all-male witness lineup.

It’s a vastly different future from her early career as a teacher.

“When I was growing up there were very few women in any positions of leadership. I thought my options were to be a teacher, a nurse or a librarian,” the 73-year-old lawmaker said.

Since becoming acting chair in October, she held the Oversight Committee’s first hearing of the year focused on a wave of recent anti-abortion policies in red states.

“I think it changes our perspective, I’m really excited about it,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who sits on the House Oversight panel, adding that it makes a difference for women outside of Congress, too. “I think people are going to be really excited to see themselves in leadership.”

The lack of chairwomen in recent decades was largely due to the shorter tenure of female lawmakers in a seniority-driven institution, said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics.

But that number should rise quickly with the exponential growth of women in Congress, particularly Democrats.

“Women are getting very close to being on par with the men within the caucus. So many of the women are newcomers. That just takes time,” Walsh said.

Lowey (D-N.Y.) was first elected in 1989, when she was among just 29 women serving in the House. Roughly a decade later, she became the first woman to lead the caucus’ campaign arm, the DCCC.

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In 2019, she became the first woman to lead the powerful Appropriations panel — where she and Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) are the first women to serve as chair and ranking member of any House panel since the Select Committee on the House Beauty Shop.

“I look forward to the day where we don’t think, ‘Oh! We’ve got seven women!’" said Dingell, who co-leads the Democratic Caucus’ messaging arm. “We’ve got seven qualified women.”

“We need to reflect the diversity of this country,” she added. “Everybody matters.”