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Capitol Hill Breastfeeding: Can 'Boob Cubes' Boost Bipartisanship?

3 years ago
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Networking in non-traditional settings is nothing new for women. When our husbands think we're just hanging out with the girls or managing the soccer game and birthday party schedules for our kids, we know that those relationships can be, and usually are, much more than just lost time. So when I read a recent New York Times story about women on both sides of the political aisle taking advantage of Capitol Hill lactation rooms, I thought that these so-called "boob cubes" could be one small step, if not the key, to the new American bipartisanship.

There was no such thing as a congressional lactation room -- a specially designated, private space for new mothers to breastfeed their babies or pump breast milk -- until 2006, when the Office of the Attending Physician in Congress made room for one. As a result, new mothers on Capitol Hill no longer had to use an empty bathroom stall or hunt for a vacant office for breastfeeding. Lactation suites got more high-profile attention in 2007 when Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House and announced she would make sure there would soon be more than one in an effort to encourage younger women to run for Congress.

Women are by their nature connectors and consensus builders. Former Democratic Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter tried to talk openly about that phenomenon during the 2010 health care debates, but was criticized by her male counterparts for daring to share an anecdote recounting that women of both political parties -- in one of the Congressional ladies rooms, of all places! -- had agreed they could probably hammer out an agreement more quickly and efficiently if they'd just send the men home and do it themselves. Shea-Porter wasn't the first to conclude that women could be the key to political compromise.

As former White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers pointed out in her book, "Why Women Should Rule the World," during her tenure in the Clinton White House, she and other women realized that they would all benefit by networking to advance various issues or see each other's points of view, but worried that if they were seen together too often that it would cut them off from the male-centric power centers. In hindsight, she says, ". . . it seems clear that we were wrong, [and] that having an occasional dinner together would have empowered us . . ."

Today, Myers believes that the relatively new phenomenon of lactation suites could help women move the American political agenda forward in a whole new way.

"The lactation rooms will almost certainly lead to relationships that might help transcend the bitter bipartisanship that now pervades the Capitol," said Myers by e-mail. "Women who have bonded in a 'boob cube' will find it very hard to reduce one another to petty caricatures on the floor or in the media. It's more likely that they'll spend time finding out what they have in common and coming up with creative solutions to ongoing problems that women (and men) from both sides of the aisle can support."

So as political women look for ways to advance understanding and compromise, it's not a stretch to see that women's time spent in Capitol Hill lactation rooms could lead to improved communication by providing a stealth location for girls-only conversation.

One Democratic staffer interviewed for the New York Times article admitted that as a result of using the lactation suite, she'd gotten to know a number of Republican women she otherwise would not have met. "You all have something very significant in your life in common," said Jennifer Walsh, the chief of staff to Rep. Dennis Cardoza, "and you can all relate to each other and sympathize about the difficulties of motherhood."

Krystal Ball, the mother of a young daughter who ran for, but lost, the race for Virginia's First Congressional District in 2010, agrees with Myers, but knows it will take a lot more than conversations among the very few breastfeeding women on Capitol Hill to create a bipartisan Washington, D.C.

"We still have a long way to go before the real power plays are happening in the 'boob cubes,' " said Ball. "For the first time in 30 years, female representation in Congress will actually decline in the 112th Congress. The number of young women in Congress also remains extremely low with only 3 women under the age of 40 compared to 25 men under 40."

Barack Obama has been chasing bipartisanship since he moved into the White House. Republican leaders taking over the 112th Congress claim they're looking for a way to create bipartisan spirit, though some are loathe to even utter the word that must go along with that idea -- "compromise." The boys on Capitol Hill say they want to be uniters, not dividers, but based on history, the odds are long even with all the bonding time they're likely to spend on the golf course.

Even if it's just a small step, the combination of women's natural inclination to find common ground with each other and this new female-only space of lactation rooms for Congress and its staffers could be the start of something big. After all, if politicos are willing to cross party lines to share tips about diaper rash and night feedings, I'm willing to bet they'll be more likely to reach out when it comes to policy-making, as well.

Follow Joanne Bamberger on Twitter and Facebook.
Filed Under: Woman Up

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