For some of the women members of Congress, working together starts on the ball field.
Last night, women members of Congress took to the field for the annual Congressional Women’s Softball Game. Unlike in the men’s baseball game, the congresswomen compete on the same team, taking on women in news media (the “Bad News Babes”) for the trophy. That bipartisanship matters, and not just symbolically. Through training and taking the field together, congresswomen build cross-party, cross-region, and cross-generation relationships that affect their work.
In our latest report, Representation Matters: Women in the U.S. Congress, my colleagues and I spoke directly with 83 of the 108 women members of the 114th Congress. The majority of them believe that women are more likely than their male colleagues to work across party lines. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) pointed out that “women in the House interact in more favorable, more harmonious ways than our male counterparts or opposing [men]…of different parties.” Many argued that women’s proclivity for collaboration came from their motivation to serve in Congress in the first place: they came to DC to get things done, and getting things done requires working together. For some of the women members of Congress, working together starts on the ball field.
In a polarized political institution like Congress, the opportunities for members to form relationships with those from the opposite party are limited. That is why the congresswomen we interviewed pointed to single-sex bipartisan travel (co-delegations), dinners, caucus, and athletics as prime sites for creating bonds and finding shared interests and priorities. Whether at morning practices or at the dinner table, congresswomen find and capitalize on opportunities to not only get to know each other on a personal level, but to establish foundations for professional collaboration. After last night’s game, Senator Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) told PBS, “I can’t really overstate what a great team-building effort it is,” and added, “We ought to do more of it.”
Of course, men engage in social activities that have similar potential for relationship-building (though not as much women, according to research by Jennifer Lawless and Sean Theriault), but there is a dynamic in women-only spaces that is distinct from those with men: some of the commiseration among women is rooted in their shared experiences as women navigating an institution built for and by men, in which they remain underrepresented. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) told us, “…We’re still a minority, and so you better stick together, and I’d say the big thing in a power environment is that our power comes from sticking together.” Representative Julia Brownley (D-CA) shared a similar sentiment, telling us, “Women, we’re a much smaller group, and so I think we have a tendency to know each other better and obviously in most cases have like interests, and we work well together.”
Last night, we saw congresswomen work well together on the softball field. To members like Representative Suzan DelBene (D-WA), that exemplifies their approach to work — and how it differs from men — on the House and Senate floors. She explained, “Instead of playing each other, the women in the House and the Senate, Democrats and Republicans all form one team and play [against the press]. And it just to me it sort of exemplifies the difference in the more collaborative approach. Let’s all form a team, we want to raise money for charities, let’s figure out how to do that. Rather than saying, ‘Let’s play each other,’ it’s, ‘Let’s play together.’ ”