Washington Sketch: The Capital Is Still a Boys' Club

By Dana Milbank
Friday, October 9, 2009

The old boys are back in town.

Item: President Obama hosts a basketball game at the White House on Thursday evening for Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress. Of the 15 participants whose names are put out by the White House, not one is a woman -- even though Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was a college basketball player and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was in town for the afternoon, played high school ball.

Item: On Thursday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is asked about a news release, issued by the National Republican Congressional Committee, that expressed the party's hope that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, would put Pelosi "in her place." Says the speaker of the House: "That language is something I haven't even heard in decades."

Item: In the White House driveway on Wednesday afternoon, Pelosi is addressing reporters when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, seeking to inject a point, puts a paternalistic arm around her shoulder. Pelosi recoils, making a pained grin and inching away from Reid. As Reid delivers his message, Pelosi raises her eyebrows -- some call it an eye roll -- to signal her disagreement.

Gender politics is always just beneath the surface in this town, because the inequality in power is stubborn and persistent. Even on Capitol Hill, only 17 senators, and roughly the same proportion of House members, are women.

But in recent days, the battle of the sexes has been unusually prominent. On Thursday morning, nine Democratic senators, all women, came to the Senate floor to denounce discrimination against women in health care. In an hour of back-to-back speeches, they called one another "sister" and discussed labor, childbirth, mammograms and domestic violence. "It's shocking to think that, in today's America, over half of this country could be discriminated against," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.).

"I thank my women colleagues for coming to the floor today to wake up this nation," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (Calif.).

This week's flare-up began when the NRCC issued a statement taking issue with Pelosi's criticism of McChrystal. "If Nancy Pelosi's failed economic policies are any indicator of the effect she may have on Afghanistan, taxpayers can only hope McChrystal is able to put her in her place," it said.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) said the Republicans' attack on Pelosi was "not surprising, coming from a party that's 80 percent male and 100 percent white." Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) recounted her exchange last month with Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, who complained about having maternity care included in his health insurance plan. "It's extreme and it's backwards," she said of the Republicans.

Pelosi, in her ceremonial office Thursday morning, tossed her head back and smiled broadly when, during her weekly news conference, NBC's Luke Russert asked her to respond to the "in her place" line. "I'm in my place," she said. "I'm the speaker of the House, the first woman speaker of the House, and I'm in my place because the House of Representatives voted me there."

The Democrats could have had more fun denouncing Republican sexism if they weren't dealing with questions about the president's basketball game. The no-girls-allowed scrimmage was a far subtler slight than the "in-her-place" putdown, but it proved distracting to Gibbs at the daily briefing. "Did the president invite any women?" CNN's Ed Henry inquired.

"The point's well taken," Gibbs replied. "The president's certainly played basketball and other sports with women in the past, and I anticipate he'll do so in the future."

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