Editors note: This column contains a quoted term that may be sensitive to some readers. It took a man to break the porcelain ceiling in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a hard time in Kyrgyzstan recently. She explained that "it requires, for a woman, usually in today's world still, an extra amount of effort." She explained that people tend to be extra critical of a female politician and how she looks. A member of the press went on to ask her what designer she wears. "Would you ever ask a man that question?" she shot back.
If only John Boehner had been there.
Hillary's professorial moment happened as the incoming male Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner, announced plans to build a women's restroom by the House floor back in Washington.
That's right. We endured a national adulation campaign back in November 2006 after it became clear that Democrats would give a woman the Speaker's gavel for the first time in American history. San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi told Katie Couric at the time: "As a woman, I'm very, very thrilled because I carry a special responsibility. I've broken the 'marble ceiling.' This Congress is steeped in tradition and history, and it's very hard for a woman to succeed to the level that I have, and I think it sends a message to all women that if this can happen, anything can happen." She broke the "marble ceiling"-- but evidently porcelain was beyond her power.
The marble-ceiling talk was silly then and that's why I enjoy the ladies' room story so much now.
The bathroom will cost money, currently unclear how much. And the House parliamentarian will lose his convenient-to-the-floor spacious office. But Boehner is determined to build it (and the parliamentarian is happy to be a gentleman about it) while insisting that the overall budget will be decreased at the same time.
It's an eye-roller of a story in a way, I realize. Women have been known to endure pain. Surely they can handle walking across Statuary Hall to the restroom even on bad-hair days. But in a city of symbolism this is a practical move that takes a sledgehammer to the faux gender politics we've suffered through for far too long -- politics that insist that liberal women know best, and that all women are liberal; a politics that had a Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, say of current Chief Justice John Roberts that "he's good in every way, except he's not a woman"; a politics in which the outgoing speaker, when questioned about her desire for an airplane upgrade, cried sexism -- "As a woman, as a woman speaker of the House, I don't want any less opportunity than male speakers have had when they've served here."
And this is more than just a bathroom I'm making into a historic cultural symbol now: With Boehner's stubborn insistence that he will manage to cut the budget even with that construction project (which includes getting plumbing into that area of the Capitol), he's heeding November's election message, too. Women are responsible and budget-conscious. Women have no patience with a Washington that isn't.
In her post-election analysis, pollster Kellyanne Conway found that "if the bailouts and spending at the beginning of the administration were the tip of the iceberg, health care reform was the tipping point for women in questioning the priorities and fiscal sanity of this administration. Women are the chief health-care officers of their households and control two out of every three dollars spent. They heavily populate the health care industry as workers, accounting for 95 percent of home health aides, 92 percent of nurses, 49 percent of pharmacists, half of medical students. Women did the math, noticing that the new health care reform plan would add 30 million new people to the rolls and not a single new doctor, and a price tag of $1 trillion and counting." Women were almost half of the tea party movement because they, like men, are "concerned" and "frustrated" (not so much "angry" in Conway's analysis) about America's future.
Conway found that "women hardly cared or noticed that there was a female Speaker of the House: "Nancy Pelosi practiced the type of hyper-partisanship, exclusiveness, and lack of transparency that offends women. By the time she lost her post, her approval ratings among men and women were more negative than positive."
Boehner's bathroom project is one practical and symbolic way of, as he would say it, cutting through a lot of this kind of hurtful and unnecessary "crap" in politics and culture. And he'll even have a practical symbol of how far we've come, right near the House floor.
Secretary Clinton, the new, male Republican speaker was listening. It's not the biggest issue in the country or even on Capitol Hill, but it's a symbol of one of the most significant stories of the year: a morning of new feminism in America -- one that has no time for the mourning that liberal feminism has brought into American lives.