The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This lawmaker says a colleague ‘mansplained’ gender pay equity law to her on the House floor

Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) reacts during the State of the Union address before members of Congress. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

A record number of women are serving in U.S. Congress this year. But an exchange on the House floor last week highlighted the challenges female politicians still face.

On Wednesday, freshman Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) contested an amendment that, she argued, watered down legislation aimed at eliminating the gender pay gap. Wild, a co-sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act and a career litigator, said the amendment would make it easier for an employer to defend paying a female employee less in court.

Then, the amendment’s male sponsor questioned her understanding of the issue.

“I was listening to the lady talk. I don’t know that she’s read my amendment,” Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) said on the House floor. “Practitioners in this area like myself understand exactly what it means; it actually solves the problem proposed by the lady,” he added.

Wild said the impact of Byrne’s questioning didn’t fully register until she returned to her office to messages from colleagues commenting on how she’d been treated.

“This isn’t the 1st time someone has mansplained #EqualPay to me,” she tweeted.

Byrne’s office did not respond to request for comment.

Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) opposed Rep. Bradley Byrne's (R-Pa.) amendment to the Paycheck Fairness Act, and he questioned her understanding of his proposal. (Video: C-SPAN)

In an interview a few days later, Wild said the exchange on the House floor reminded her of some of the challenges working women face.

“Thirty years ago things were a lot different. It was not unusual to have men explain something or suggest I didn’t know what I was talking about or reading,” she said. “I’ve learned how to stand up for myself. I have developed strong coping skills for being in a male-dominated profession.”

Existing law permits disparities in pay if it’s due to seniority, merit, quality or quantity of work, or a “factor other than sex.” The Paycheck Fairness Act would have narrowed that fourth criteria by clarifying that the defense must be based on “a bona fide factor other than sex, such as education, training, or experience.”

Byrne’s amendment would have changed the definition to “bona fide business-related factor defense.”

Jennifer Lawless, a professor at the University of Virginia, said that the gender biases in politics are more subtle now but still exist. Men aren’t explicitly sexist or discriminatory, she said, but they sometimes diminish or belittle women’s accomplishments.

“Regardless of his intent, there are gendered implications if this is a woman with these credentials,” Lawless said. “What kind of message does that send to other women in Congress, other women who think about running for Congress or think about joining the political environment that (a congressman) is mansplaining and trying to undermine someone who is well credentialed.”

The moment was reminiscent of the Oval Office meeting between President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, when Trump explained Senate procedure to her and said he understood that she was “in a situation where it’s not easy for her to talk right now.”

“Please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting,” Pelosi told the president.

Reflecting on the House exchange several days later, Wild said she was concerned about the message Byrne sent to other women.

“It really concerns me that a congressman with as much experience as he has — I’m a freshman congresswoman, so maybe he thought he’d get the upper hand and intimidate me,” she said. “ I don’t take it personally, but I worry about a lot of younger women, my daughter and others, and I don’t want to see them exposed that.”