Ladies Night on Capitol Hill

Women hold the balance of power in the Senate health-care debate. But Linda Hirshman argues their influence is shakier than it seems.

AP Photo (3)

Word from the Senate is that negotiations over health-care reform are going hot and heavy... in the Ladies Room. Two of the four female Republicans, Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, are the Democrats’ best hope of gaining bipartisan support. And two of the 13 female Democrats, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, are the Democrats' worst headache in trying to hold their ranks together. True, Democrat Ben Nelson and independent Joe Lieberman are probably passing notes from under the next stall, so it's not only the distaff doing the bargaining. Still, it is either worthy of note or a weird coincidence that two-thirds or more of the critical health-care players in the Senate at this juncture are women.

The female senators, in short, aren’t in the spotlight because they’re the experts. They matter because they are the middle.

Contrary to the banal media observations, this is not because health care is a woman's issue. Congresswomen were not much involved in the health-care legislation as it has made its way through the House. In the Senate, there are four women on the 23-member Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, but both the chairman and the ranking member are men, and the reports from the panel's deliberations did not reflect an especially high level of participation from the female rank and file. Four of the 23 members of the Senate Finance Committee, where so many of the battles were fought, are female, but, again, the chairman and ranking member are both male. Few of the policy wonks who produced the endless array of options, public and otherwise, for the shape and content of the program were female. When Majority Leader Harry Reid held his press conference to announce the Senate had produced a bill to debate, the six speakers included only one female senator, and no one thinks Patty Murray played much of a role in drafting the legislation (as usual, the mom in tennis shoes senator spoke about a mom whose son was sick or some such schwarmerei).

The White House health "czar" is a czarina, Nancy-Ann De Parle, but as so many others have noticed, the White House hasn't been all that involved in the process. DeParle's main public role seems to be accompanying the First Lady to little feel-good symposiums in which women sit around and tell each other their sad stories about health care.

The female senators, in short, aren't in the spotlight because they're the experts. They matter because they are the middle. The two female Republican senators are the most liberal of the conservative minority left in the chamber after two cycles of Democratic victories. And the two Democratic women are among the most conservative in their party's tent.

Their presence, on the margins of their parties, presents interesting insight into the role of women in the polarized, partisan political climate. Women candidates are in fact more liberal than men are, as a whole. Indeed, voters tend to believe the women are more liberal than they actually are. As the Republican Party grew more conservative, the suspicions about women being exceptionally liberal—both grounded and groundless—became a greater and greater liability, until most of the females in the GOP delegation were from one blue state, Maine. The other two GOP women in the Senate are Lisa Murkowski, whose father appointed her to her first term, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is leaving to run a very dicey campaign for governor in Texas. (Hutchison's plight, as the cosmopolitan alternative to the far-right, secessionist- suggesting incumbent, grows increasingly dire by the day. Last week she conceded to him that she had made a mistake by voting for the Bush administration's bailout plan last October.)

Conversely, the only Republicans a blue state would elect were women. The Democrats' targets, Snowe and Collins, have the lowest party loyalty rankings of any senator in the 111th Congress. Just this week, South Carolina's senior senator, Lindsey Graham—who has a pretty conservative record but is still under fire from the conservative boys club—reminded his colleagues that none of them could actually carry Maine.

The red state Democratic women do on the whole only a little worse than the red state Democratic men in their electoral contests. But they act as if they have to be more conservative than identically situated male Democrats from red states do. McCaskill and Lincoln differed from their party more than any of the eleven other red state Democrats except Nebraska's Ben Nelson. Landrieu's voting record is moderately in line with the party, but her dissents come on very visible issues, particularly guns and abortion.

These moves to the right have costs. Landrieu and Lincoln cast so many anti-abortion votes that they finally lost the financial support of EMILY's List, the Democratic pro-choice women's group—a very heavy hitter in the fundraising world. Most of the speculation about why Claire McCaskill backed off from her original Twitter blast in support for the Stupak amendment limiting abortion coverage centers on pressure from pro-choice forces within the party. It's one thing to piss off EMILY, but presenting as more conservative than a similarly situated male red state Senator would do was bound to place these women on a collision course with the party itself, however large the tent. That moment came when both Landrieu and Lincoln looked into the abyss of being the one vote that would defeat health care in order to hang onto their seats.

The emergence of women as power brokers on the health-care legislation looks at first like power. But in the end, their leverage turns out to be more about weakness than strength. Conservative female Democrats pressured by the newly elected president not to kill his signature issue and liberal female Republicans hanging on for dear life in the last Northeastern state to send the GOP to the Senate: neither look like good long-term bets for survival in the Darwinian process of increasingly ideological American politics.

Linda Hirshman is a retired professor of philosophy. She is the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World. She is writing a book about the gay revolution.