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Yesterday’s Congressional women’s softball game was bipartisan. But are women actually more bipartisan in practice?

- June 16, 2016
The Congressional Members team put their hands together before the start of the 2016 Congressional Women’s Softball Game on June 15, 2016 in Watkins Recreation Center in Washington D.C.. Left to right, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D, FL-23), Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D, NM-1), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D, AZ-9), Rep. Joyce Beatty (D, OH-3), Rep. Mia Love (R-UT-4), and Rep. Gwen Graham (D, FL-2). (Photo by Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com).

Yesterday, 17 of the House and Senate’s 104 women took to the diamond in the bipartisan Congressional Women’s Softball Game. The game was launched in 2009, with members from both sides of the aisle coming together to play the women of the Washington press corps. Abby Livingston, three-time MVP and a reporter for the Texas Tribune, once joked, “We’re the common enemy that brings Republicans and Democrats together.”

That’s in contrast to what some congresswomen call “the men’s baseball game,” in which Republicans play Democrats. (Technically, it’s open to both women and men, but only one woman – Rep. Linda T. Sánchez, a Democrat from California – actually plays.)

Does the bipartisan camaraderie on the softball field reveal anything distinctive about women in Congress? The answer is mixed. Let’s look at three things we can learn from the research about women in U.S. politics.

1. Women in politics appear to display more friendship and collegiality

Some early 20th century commentators mocked the idea of women entering politics by predicting that women would make public life so domestic and cozy that we’d see “the White House full of kittens!” Though post-suffrage politics has involved fewer felines than one might have hoped, there are areas in which research suggests women in politics may deviate from the male norms of behavior. Collegiality and friendship – or at least a display of it appears to be one of these.

The Congressional Women’s Softball Game is one such example. In floor speeches, women from both sides of the aisle have talked of the bonds formed over their months of training. In a 2015 speech, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) thanked her colleagues and teammates, saying, “They have become my sisters and my friends throughout the whole season.”

Investment in bipartisan friendships appears to be common among women in politics. Jennifer Lawless and Sean Theriault’s research on cooperation in Congress finds women are indeed more likely than men to partake in three of the key bipartisan social events in congress the Secret Santa gift exchange, Seersucker Thursday and the softball and baseball games.

Of course, this may be because there are comparatively few women in national politics. In the U.S., women hold only 19.4 percent of all seats in the House and Senate, and globally only 22.7 percent of all legislators are women. So friendship and social networks may be an especially important source of political capital and support for women.

That’s what Sarah Childs found in research on the United Kingdom. Among women Labour Members of Parliament, a strong sense of friendship developed based on “shared sense of identity and experiences” – and these bonds helped “enable women MPs to better inhabit and operate within the House of Commons.”

Similarly Tiffany Barnes finds, as she describes in her new book on women in Argentinian politics, that women are more inclined to collaborate, in part to overcome the structural barriers that otherwise limit their influence.

2. But women don’t necessarily get involved in more bipartisan legislation.

Does women’s added collegiality translate into bipartisan policymaking? Research offers mixed results. In general, scholars find that when it comes to legislation, women and men are much more alike than they are different. Both are influenced by partisan and constituent demands. But in some instances, friendships from events such as softball do appear to be important sources of bipartisan legislation.

Interviews with congresswomen after last night’s game offered plenty of examples of bipartisan work among women after friendships were formed on the field. Democrat Cheri Bustos (Ill.), for example, said that she and Republican Kristi Noem (S.D.) led a bipartisan letter addressing ethanol regulation as a result of getting to know each other on the softball team.

Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) claimed that the softball game “makes for camaraderie in a positive way and that always ends up in good legislation.” She and Democrat Katherine Clark (Mass.) introduced the Pets and Women’s Safety (PAWS) Act after meeting during softball. She explained that the team provided a group of women to turn to when working on legislation, particularly on issues such as domestic violence and sexual assault.

Wasserman Schultz also worked across the aisle with Republican Renee Ellmers (N.C.) to pass the Protecting Access to Lifesaving Screenings (PALS) Act and the Trafficking Awareness Training for Health Care Act. Wasserman Schultz is adamant that there is “zero chance” that would have happened without the softball game, saying, “We end up, as a result of this game, working with women that we would have never spoken to.”

Beyond just those on the softball team, a 2015 Quorum study of the U.S. Congress’s 111th-114th sessions, which ran from 2009 to 2015, found women in the Senate were more likely to co-sponsor with another woman. Female senators co-sponsored an average of 6.3 bills with a fellow woman (including women across the aisle), compared to the 4.1 bills men sponsored with other men.

However, this study did not find any significant differences between men and women in the House. These patterns might thus suggest a unique culture that’s developed among the 20 women in the Senate, rather than systematic gender differences. Bonds between women in the Senate have been widely noted. During the 2013 government shutdown, the Senate’s women were credited with resolving the crisis, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) noted when he said that “Leadership, I must fully admit, was provided primarily from women in the Senate.”

It is important to emphasize, though, that general patterns of bipartisanship (or lack thereof) are not unique to women. After looking at various measurements of bipartisanship including bipartisan CODEL participation, bill co-sponsorship, procedural votes, and amendments Lawless and Theriault ultimately find no evidence that women’s legislative behavior is significantly different to men’s. So while there are specific instances where congresswomen work together across the aisle as a result of the softball game, women overall are not more likely than their male counterparts to engage in bipartisan legislative activities.

3. Women in Congress try to represent women’s distinct policy concerns.

The Congressional Women’s Softball Game stands out from most congressional events in another way, beyond being bipartisan: It’s explicitly gendered, as very few congressional activities are. The players wore pink jerseys and raised money for young women with breast cancer, all while Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” was played again and again. In other words, this is emphatically an event by and for women.

Do the women in Congress also work to represent women – and women’s interests on the legislative floor?

Again, the research is mixed. In his analysis of roll-call voting, Brian Frederick finds that Republican women in the House are now “ideologically indistinguishable” from their Republican male counterparts. But partisan voting patterns are not the only way to measure activity in Congress.

Michele Swers shows that women members in both the House and the Senate are more likely than their male counterparts to advocate for “women’s issues” issues related to social welfare, women’s health, child care, equal pay and the like.

Indeed, a shared interest in “women’s issues” sometimes brings women together across party lines. In 2009, Wasserman Schultz announced that she had breast cancer. Her diagnosis was part of the spur that brought women in Congress together for their very first Congressional Women’s Softball Game to benefit the Young Survival Coalition. Wasserman Schultz then introduced the bipartisan Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young (EARLY) Act to increase knowledge of breast cancer among women, and though not enacted that session, many of her softball teammates cosponsored the bill.  

Susan J. Carroll finds women in Congress often feel a responsibility to act on behalf of women both within and outside of their geographic districts. Exactly how they define women’s interests, of course, varies from one to the next. Congresswomen often work to represent women at the intersection of their racial and gender identities, and do so from the points of view of their own parties and ideologies.

Several studies also show that women members give more floor speeches than their male counterparts, and are more likely to discuss women when they speak in Congress. Again, though, these gendered claims are filtered through partisan allegiances, with Republican women discussing how taxes and business issues affect women, and Democratic women advocating more often for social welfare policies.

Wasserman Schultz might have been correct when she said in a 2010 floor speech that women in Congress “not only know how to have a good time, know how to play softball, but they know how to get along.” But that desire to “get along” doesn’t always result in more bipartisan policymaking, especially in this era of partisan polarization.

So though women’s softball might not be indicative of a completely different way of doing politics, bipartisan friendships and an emphasis on women’s issues are important features of political life for some women working in a still male-dominated Congress.

Mary Nugent is a PhD candidate in political science at Rutgers University. Find her on Twitter @marynugent1.

Catherine Wineinger is a PhD candidate in political science at Rutgers University, a graduate research assistant at the Center for American Women and Politics, and a former college softball player.