You have to hand it to the first-year Democratic women of the House: They don’t hold back.
While the new Democratic majority is sprawling and diverse, a coterie of outspoken, progressive women has seized Centre stage — and not always in a good way. Even as they deliver a jolt of energy, the freshman Furies, as they have been dubbed, are inclined to do and say impolitic things that give their colleagues agita. Fans find the newbies’ unconventional style refreshing. Sceptics find them reckless and fret that they will pull the party in an unpalatable direction, ideologically, stylistically or both.
Who knows how the rookies will affect the Democratic brand. But already they’re doing their best to dismantle one of the most tiresome and inaccurate stereotypes in politics: that women lawmakers are inherently more civil, more collaborative, less power-hungry and less personally ambitious than men.
The idea that women are the key to a kinder and smoother-running Congress has been popular for as long as women have had a meaningful presence there. More than two decades ago, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, long known as the dean of Senate women, began organising monthly, bipartisan, women-only dinners in an effort to create a “zone of civility.” The concept of a nurturing, solutions-oriented sisterhood has endured, often fostered by the women themselves.
Hillary Clinton sold this argument in her 2016 campaign, telling Time, “I just think women in general are better listeners, are more collegial, more open to new ideas and how to make things work in a way that looks for win-win outcomes.”
In the Age of Trump, the idea of women as a civilising force in some ways holds even fiercer appeal. Last cycle, a historic number of women won office on the promise of combating the toxic culture. In January, Rep. Susan Wild, a Democratic freshman from Pennsylvania, told Politico: “I believe that women, whether it’s in our DNA or a learnt behaviour, are natural facilitators. We spend our lifetime in our families solving problems, at least those of us who are mothers. And I think that maternal instinct will hopefully operate to help us work for the common good.”
How uplifting. How stirring.
We can debate the leadership, communication and negotiating styles of women vs. men. But when it comes to the self-selecting gals who elbow their way into high office, the idea that they’re less ragingly ambitious, more conciliatory or less partisan is insulting and contrary to the facts.
Look at the Republican Party in recent years. For every low-key moderate like Rep. Elise Stefanik and Sen. Susan Collins, there is a Sen. Marsha Blackburn and a Rep. Liz Cheney — ladies every bit as edgy, combative and partisan as any guy. Looking for even more edge? We offer Sarah Palin.
The top tier of Democratic women features plenty of ambition and partisanship as well. Nancy Pelosi? Elizabeth Warren? Hillary Clinton?
Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University, was a co-author of a 2016 examination of “the prevailing view that women are more likely than men to move forward a legislative process that has so long been plagued by polarisation and partisan warfare.” Testing the thesis in a variety of ways, the researchers “came up with no evidence for it whatsoever, no matter where we looked.”
Similarly, after analysing the legislative habits of Congress members, a 2016 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found “no support for the hypothesis that women are inherently more willing to compromise.”
The new Democratic women representatives have wasted no time making clear that, when displeased, they’re willing to call out both the opposition and their own teammates. A heartbeat after being elected, Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib backed a crusade by liberal activists looking to enlist primary opponents for more establishment Democrats. As the new majority was settling in, Ocasio-Cortez joined a sit-in at Pelosi’s offices in support of a Green New Deal. This month she chided Democrats for what she saw as an overreaction to Omar’s flirtation with anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Tlaib, responding to Pelosi’s assertion that, absent bipartisan support, it was “just not worth it” to impeach the president, announced that she would be ploughing ahead with an impeachment resolution to be filed soon.
In her first floor speech, Ayanna Pressley, the freshman Democratic representative from Massachusetts, railed against Trump, whom she dismissed as “the occupant of the White House,” breaching House rules and earning her a warning from the presiding Democrat.
These hard-charging women also give the lie to the idea that, unlike men, they have no interest in the spotlight — that they are content to keep their heads down and get the work done. With their social media celebrity and assertive style, they recognise the value of branding — even if it rubs colleagues the wrong way, which it often does.
This is not to say that women don’t bring anything different to the political table. They bring fresh perspectives and priorities and, often, different work styles. But the notion that they are operationally or characterologically — perhaps even morally — superior to men, is dangerous. While it may make for an appealing narrative, it sets up unrealistic expectations. The public is then dismayed when a woman takes a self-protective vote or comes across as nakedly ambitious or is rumoured to be a mean boss.
So let’s hear it for the freshmen Furies in all their abrasive, ambitious, in-your-face glory. If they can chip away at the pretty little myth of women as political saviours, they will have done a service to us all.
Michelle Cottle is a prominent American editorial writer and columnist