I'd love to see more interviews with politicians begin as this one did.
On April 24, entrepreneur Tory Burch was onstage at her Embrace Ambition conference in New York, ready to interview Kevin McCarthy, Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Joe Kennedy III, a Democratic member of Congress from Massachusetts.
"I want to ask you a question I get, in almost every interview," began Burch. "Tell me about what you're wearing."
The audience laughed. The guys looked uncomfortable. Then Burch rescued them. "What I meant to say is," she said, "Is it possible to balance being a mom with a career? Or a dad?"
On that one, Kennedy, who has a 2-year-old girl and a 4-month-old boy, at least tried for an answer. And he said what many working parents have long ago figured out. "This job," he said, referring to Congress, "is by far the easiest part of my day."
That's not to say it's easy. "I've had this conversation with male and female colleagues, and the nature of the way this job is constructed makes it so much harder for young female members of Congress," said Kennedy. He said it took until 2018 for a member of Congress--Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, who is 50--to be able to bring a baby on the floor, and that it shouldn't have taken that long.
For his part, McCarthy said the difficulties are often "the basic things people don't think about."Things like being able to get home before a snowstorm blows in, and knowing that you might not make it back to work the next day, or having to stay home because a child is sick.
And in the case of women, finding a bathroom. McCarthy said it wasn't until John Boehner became Speaker that a room adjacent to the Speaker's Lobby was converted to a women's bathroom. Up until then, he said, the men's bathroom had been conveniently located, while the women's bathroom "was all the way back, and there's no way there's going to be time for them to get there and back."
Women, Congress, and Change
The meat of the conversation turned on whether, and how, Congress would substantially change if more women were elected. On that, Kennedy and McCarthy disagreed.
Kennedy seemed to think Congress would change, simply because right now, its membership is not reflective of the people it serves. Getting more women into Congress would be a step toward fixing that, and having a Congress that understands more about the lived experiences of different people.
In 1967, noted Kennedy, 10 percent of women were breadwinners, whereas today, 42 percent of women are breadwinners and another 22 percent are co-breadwinners. "Yet, a number of these family-oriented policies don't get the focus or attention they perhaps should," Kennedy said. "When I look at the prospect of more women running for office, it's folks confronting some of those challenges families are facing around the country."
McCarthy agreed that, given that women make up 53 percent of the electorate, there should be more women in Congress. But, he said, "the women are not going to change their principles. We don't have differences because we have parties. We have parties because we have differences."
Burch then asked how perceptions of ambitious women affected the most recent Presidential election. McCarthy said that while women get "attacked" more for being ambitious, "It's not from men. Women judge women." He pointed out that being ambitious didn't stop Hillary Clinton from becoming a senator or Secretary of State. And he said it's fine to be ambitious to change the country, but not to be ambitious solely for yourself. (A later panelist, Tina Tchen, a partner at Buckley Sandler LLP, disagreed.) Burch responded: "I do think women are attacked by women, for sure. But I really think they're attacked by men," to audience applause.
Kennedy said it was "undeniable" that women candidates face a level of scrutiny unknown to men. "You take these cues from neighbors, from friends, just from the culture, where it seems to be OK to comment on what you're wearing." He recalled the flak Melania Trump got for wearing heels while boarding Air Force One to visit post-hurricane Houston. "Give me a break," he said. "Acknowledging the unconscious part is critical. And social media makes it worse."
Overall, McCarthy seemed sanguine that things would improve, paraphrasing a famous remark by Winston Churchill that "You can count on Americans to do it right, after they've exhausted every other option."
"Well," said Burch, "We're almost there."