No, women wouldn't have solved the shutdown sooner!

Media outlets like to claim women are less prone to debacles like this -- but here's why that does women no favors

By Katie McDonough
Published October 17, 2013 11:43AM (EDT)
Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, Claire McCaskill                    (AP/Michael Dwyer/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Sarah Conard)
Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, Claire McCaskill (AP/Michael Dwyer/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Sarah Conard)

Congress voted Wednesday to reopen the government and increase the debt limit, temporarily ending a manufactured crisis that took $24 billion out of the economy, left federal workers without their paychecks and deprived millions of other Americans of access to vital federal programs.

But, according to recent reports from CNN, MSNBC and the New York Times, Congress could have gotten things up and running again sooner if women had been calling the shots.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that women were so heavily involved in trying to end this stalemate,” Republican Sen. Susan Collins told the Times. “Although we span the ideological spectrum, we are used to working together in a collaborative way.”

The sentiment was echoed by Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who remarked to MSNBC, “If it were up to the women, this would be over already. There’s still a lot of testosterone going around.”

But is this actually the case? Would Theodora Cruz or Paula Ryan have ended the shutdown any faster? Or avoided it altogether?

As Ann Friedman noted recently, there is some data to support the idea that women in leadership positions are less impulsive, less corruptible and more willing to compromise than their male colleagues and counterparts. But researchers suggest that may be because, with so few represented in the seats of power, women in leadership positions feel they have to succeed because they have more to prove. And for all that Collins and Cantwell may have done to facilitate the deal that was eventually reached, there were other women, like Republican House members Michele Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn, working just as hard to maintain the deadlock.

So while it may feel good to read Hanna Rosin declare that, "Perhaps this will be remembered as the week when everything shifted, when we realized that leaving groups of men in charge of global decisions and of facing down terrorists is not a good idea, and we'd better calmly hand the reins over to the women," it's still a flawed argument.

There is also something uncomfortable, even unfeminist about relying on reductive stereotypes about women to argue why more should be in power. Borrowing again from Friedman, while women's alleged penchants for empathy and compromise are currently being used to advocate for greater influence in the public and political spheres, the same arguments are employed just as often to marginalize women and keep them at home -- whether or not they want to be there.

Accepting these gendered assumptions also ignores women's ability to be strategic and ambitious in order to get what they want. When Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill recently said, “The women that are in the Senate, by and large, are trying to find that place where we can get something done. We’re not as interested in fighting as we are in moving the substance of the issue," she no doubt meant it. But she was also constructing an intentional narrative about women's power to lead in Congress, an image that elevates her political profile and highlights her strengths as a negotiator.

Women in Congress don't succeed because they are women. They succeed because they happen to be good at their jobs. (Even if, like Bachmann, your "job" is to be a wildly self-promotional and obstructionist jerk.)

Arguments exalting women for their rationality and ability to do it "better than the boys," specifically in this moment of domestic and global crisis, also put women in a traditionally female position of cleaning up other people's messes. So John Boehner allowed an extreme minority of the Republican party to take the country hostage for 16 days? Boys will be boys! Relax and let the women of Congress clean House.

Rosin seems to concede this framing when she references Iceland's economic turnaround under female leaders using a quote from IMF chief Christine Lagarde. "She explained how women brought Iceland out of its recession. After the economy crashed, 'the banks, the funds, the government -- everything was taken over by women,' [Lagarde] told The Wall Street Journal. 'So when it's messy, you get the women in. But when the mess is sorted,' she added, 'keep the women.'"

Such narratives are enticing, but gender parity in politics is important because women make up 50 percent of the population, not because of any secret magic powers they possess. As half the population, it only makes sense, is only fair, to have women make up the same proportion of our political representatives.

If that means cleaning up some political messes, all the better. But increasing the number of women in Congress also means that more will soon be making their own messes, too.

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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