The second season of Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” premieres April 25. But never fear, viewers who can’t wait that long for a story about a world where men reign supreme and women have to find a way to work around the rules they’ve established: You’ve got the U.S. Senate to read about. The tales of cluelessness and entitlement coming out of the legislative body are, of course, nowhere near as awful or terrifying as Margaret Atwood’s story of sexual chattel slavery. Still, they speak to a huge gap in the imaginations of the people who are supposed to represent Americans — male and female alike — in Congress.
Let’s start with Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.). This month, she became the first member of the Senate to give birth to a child while serving in office. She joined a small but illustrious club, becoming only the 10th woman to have a child during her time in Congress. That relatively few women have had this experience highlights not merely how male Congress is, but how old members of Congress generally are; Duckworth herself is 50.
And that isn’t the only thing that Duckworth’s pregnancy reveals. Senate leadership, it seems, never bothered to even imagine a future in which the body might not be dominated by men. Earlier this year, Duckworth told Politico’s Anna Palmer and Reena Flores that, though she would be taking leave, she was still working on figuring out how that leave would be structured and how it would affect her ability to do her job. Would she be able to take votes on important pieces of legislation that came up for approval during her time off? Would she be able to introduce new bills if necessary? What happens if she is breastfeeding and an important vote comes up, and she has to choose between feeding her daughter and appearing on the Senate floor, which bans children?
It is stunning that these questions have never been answered before. And while it’s nice, if insanely overdue, that Duckworth’s pregnancy is finally forcing the issue, the situation speaks to the sclerosis and lack of creativity in what’s supposed to be America’s foremost legislative body. (Memo to Senate leadership: Someday, you may find that even male senators want to take parental leave, or even the possibility that a gay male senator and his husband might adopt a child and want to take leave to establish their new family dynamic. Family leave! It’s not just for those who actually give birth!)
Duckworth’s predicament isn’t even the craziest vestige of Senate sexism to be reported in 2018. Over the weekend, a group of female senators reflected on their experiences at an event at the New York Times. Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported this particular jaw-dropping tidbit:
When then-Senator Kay Hagan, the North Carolina Democrat, arrived in the Senate in 2009, she wanted to swim [in a pool located at the men’s gym], only to be greeted with a sign on the door that said “men only.” There was a reason for the sign, [Sen. Susan] Collins [(R-Maine)] said. There were at least two male senators — she would not name them — who enjoyed swimming in the nude. Today, women can use the pool, and the sign says “Proper Attire Required.”
The idea that the Senate was enough of a boy’s club — I am not sure the unnamed Senators in question deserve to be treated as gentlemen — that two of them believed their right to swim in the buff superseded the right of a woman to use the pool as recently as 2009 is a detail that I might reject in a work of fiction. This sort of behavior is an assumption not merely of privilege, but of the idea that things will never, ever change such that a man might have to discomfit himself so far as to don a pair of swim trunks.
I simply cannot imagine what it would be like to be catered to in this fashion, or even what I would ask for if I could expect this level of deference. A luxury breast-pumping lounge? A women’s-only Senate spa, staffed by only the most gifted nail artists and finest masseuses? A year of paid maternity leave? Free child care for life? Even as I’m making this list, I recognize that three-quarters of the ideas I’ve come up with are actually about making it more convenient for women to care for someone else, rather than something as self-centered and indulgent as the right to swim naked no matter what it cost someone else.
Maybe the lesson of these two stories is that male senators past have found it far too hard to imagine acting for the convenience of others, even the most vulnerable among us, and far too easy to catalogue their own needs. That’s a bad baseline for the people who make critically important policy decisions for most Americans. But at least they haven’t started forcing us into those red robes and white bonnets.