How fascinating to watch the U.S. Senate struggle to come to grips with actual real-life women invading their offices.
I’m thinking of course of all the demonstrators in the Senate office buildings last week and this week, taking up space on the floor, shouting in the background as members are interviewed by the press, cornering a senator in the elevator and saying “look at me when I’m talking to you” and spilling the raw guts of female experience all over the senator, the elevator, the floor, and the country. I’m thinking of the women who occupied Joe Manchin’s campaign headquarters in West Virginia yesterday and said they weren’t coming out until he pledged to vote no on Kavanaugh — or until they were arrested. The outcome? They were arrested this morning.
This is at the heart of everything that’s going on in the protests in Congress, and the furious posting and tweeting, and the marching: women are saying to America: “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” and telling our stories. Our strength is in each other and the truthfulness of our stories. And you know it too, America; if you didn’t know in your gut that these stories are true, if they were the made-up propaganda of a left-wing political operation, you would have stopped listening to us a long time ago.
It’s a crazy understatement to say that America’s political institutions have not been structured to allow for the presence of women. Women didn’t get the right to vote for the first 150 years of the existence of this country. Even now, after multiple “Years of the Woman,” the Senate is only 21% female. Entry into politics has been restricted to the extraordinarily well-funded and personally amazing female trailblazers. But what’s happening now is that the ordinary is coming to the American Senate. The ordinary and the everyday and the real of American female life, which includes, sorrowfully, sexual assault (or its unhappy cousin, contorting yourself in a million different ways and limiting your options and your mobility so as to avoid sexual assault).
Nothing is more ordinary than bathrooms, and I was thinking today about what a symbol they are for belonging. If there’s no bathroom for you, you can’t stay somewhere for more than a few hours. If a place is designed without a bathroom for you, it’s telling you you don’t belong there. That was at the heart of the North Carolina bathroom controversy of a year ago. To not give a trans woman a bathroom to use was to tell her she shouldn’t be in that restaurant, or workplace, or house of worship.
My own experience with bathrooms confirms that sense of exclusion. I was an employee of the U.S. Senate in the 70s and 80s, and was reprimanded the first day because I used the single-person bathroom within the office, which was a lovely suite of rooms within the actual capital building, just off the Senate rotunda. I used it, because, well, it was there. I may have actually put a used rolled-up maxi pad in the trashcan on my way out. The powers that be had a female supervisor come tell me that women using the in-office bathroom was not permitted, and to show me how I could exit the suite, and go down a dark hallway, and make a few turns, to get to the outside sanctioned ladies room. By the way, that tiny out-of-the way bathroom was the facility the female Senators used when they came off the floor- which tells you a lot right there about how many women were in the Senate at that time.
My law school also had a bathroom issue. In some of the classrooms (and in the library), there were men’s rooms right outside the door of the room, but women had to go down at least one flight of stairs and use the ladies room in the basement. It felt unsafe to be that far away from the common areas. Bathrooms in the basement also literally gave me less time to complete an exam than a male student if both of us had to use the bathroom during an exam, since he had less ground to cover in his round trip. Don’t think I didn’t think about that, and resented it, as I was huffing and puffing up and down the stairs during exams.
So where we are today, with the messiness of women’s real lives and real experiences finally seeing the light of day, and being broadcast live throughout the country, is a watershed moment in American politics. We can continue to make politics the exclusive province of the elite few, with carefully chosen avatars (I think of Trump saying of Judge Kavanaugh, “He was born to be on the Supreme Court”, and Sen. McConnell saying, “He’s been an incredibly successful individual”), or we can let everyday, ordinary American women into the halls of power.
But wait- we’re already here, this week. I think we’ll stay. There’s joy here, and this is where we belong. Time to build more bathrooms!