Here’s How Women Are Changing the Most Important Workspace in America

published Dec 4, 2018
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Members-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Image credit: Tom Williams/Getty Images)

Many homeowners know the experience of moving into an outdated space and planning some much-needed renovations. For the 102 women elected to Congress during the 2018 midterm elections (a record, by the way), they may not be able to gut the place but they could influence some major building changes. Now that nearly one in five legislators on Capitol Hill will be a woman, the building needs to prepare for these leaders and their teams.

For decades, Capitol Hill was a man’s world and they controlled many of the gathering spaces, including a two-floor gym, smoking lounges, and more. As women started gaining numbers in Congress, they took up important political fights outside and inside the Dome’s walls.

It begins with the bathroom

Women’s influence on the Capitol starts in one of the most basic rooms in any building: the bathroom. In the early 1990s, female senators weren’t able to use the Senators-only restroom because that label really meant “men-only.” Female legislators, like Nancy Kassenbaum or Barbara Mikulski, instead used a restroom meant for tourists visiting the Capitol until it was agreed that women’s restrooms needed to be installed adjacent to the Senate floor. After all, 1992 was “The Year of the Woman,” and the last time that a notable number of female legislators (54) were elected to Congress.

“It speaks volumes to how much of our public infrastructure and our political infrastructure has been dominated by men ever since its creation.”

The new restroom was small and windowless, but three additional stalls were eventually added in 2000. In 2010, the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing to address the continued “restroom gender parity,” and in 2011, the House of Representatives, led by Speaker John Boehner, followed the Senate and installed nearby bathrooms for Congresswomen.

“I was fascinated slash appalled at the lack of access for women in terms of restrooms in the building,” says Lori Brown, professor of architecture at Syracuse University and leader of Architexx, a non-profit organization focused on gender equity in architecture. “It speaks volumes to how much of our public infrastructure and our political infrastructure has been dominated by men ever since its creation.”

Brown further explains that the gendered bathroom issue isn’t just an issue in the Capitol, though the historic building is in a place to be a leader. “There’s a formula,” Brown explains, referring to the federal code in Washington, D.C. that mandates how many bathrooms and stalls are required per gender based on employee numbers. “But most often those numbers don’t take into account how long it takes a woman to use the restroom.”

In 2013, the Senate ruled to double the number of women’s restrooms to accommodate the influx of female legislators—and Senator Amy Klobuchar tweeted about the “first-ever in U.S. history traffic jam in women senators’ restrooms,” jokingly but accurately referring to the gender disparity in bathroom stalls.

“That’s a good problem!” Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth told Apartment Therapy. “I look forward to the day when they’ll have to add more stalls on the Senate side.”

Even though the number of stalls may increase, the facilities within the women’s restrooms aren’t quite up to par. Between malfunctioning—or occasionally nonexistent—feminine hygiene product dispensers, or a lack of changing tables, the bathrooms aren’t equipped to meet the legislators’ needs.

“I have never been in a bathroom that didn’t have a machine with feminine products,” Congresswoman Norma Torres of California told Apartment Therapy. “It wasn’t until I had an emergency [that I realized]. My office is all the way in the Longworth Building and I can’t run back [before a vote]. Other women showed me a bathroom within Leader Pelosi’s office that does have women’s products and more privacy, but I shouldn’t have to go into her office.”

“We should not have to decide if we want to represent our communities here or if we want to stay home and have a baby.”

Parents are people (and legislators), too

That’s not Torres’ only idea for modernizing the building. Her list is long: It includes more private lactation rooms, safe spaces for women to leave their children with supervision that’s close to the floor when there’s a vote (since they can’t bring children onto the floor), or decent changing tables.

“We should not have to decide if we want to represent our communities here or if we want to stay home and have a baby,” Torres says.

The new crop of female legislators includes a number of younger women—incoming Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Abby Finkenauer, both 29, are among the youngest—meaning that many are or could be mothers of young children or infants, so they need a place to pump.

In 2006, The Office of the Attending Physician opened up the first dedicated lactation suite in the Russell Senate Office Building, equipped with “pumps, chairs, TVs, and refrigerators,” and in 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California created dedicated facilities for nursing mothers in the House buildings.

After a 2016 NBC report revealed that the U.S. Capitol didn’t meet federal standards for lactation rooms, Senator Robert Casey wrote a letter to Senator Roy Blunt, chairman of the Rules Committee asking the committee to address these changes. “I respectfully urge you to take steps to improve the facilities available for parents working in… the Senate,” his letter read, and that year, a bill was passed to bring the building up to federal standards, which at the time was 42 nursing rooms for the 7,000 female legislators and staffers.

Casey’s letter also addressed the need for baby changing stations in all bathrooms, regardless of gender. In 2017, the 114th Congress met to pass a bill that would allocate funds for temporary parking for pregnant staffers and increase the number of changing stations available in Capitol restrooms. This fall, when the changing tables were installed, Duckworth remembers the excitement of female legislators who gathered to see the new stations in their bathrooms. After seeing them for herself, Duckworth immediately had a question:

“I asked—or made sure—that they would put [a changing station] in the men’s room.”

Newly elected members of the House of Representatives pose for an official class photo outside the U.S. Capitol on November 14 (Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Working out, or hardly working

Duckworth is a noted leader in Congress for making facilities more accessible for working mothers and disabled individuals—and has specifically spent time working to make the workout facilities more useful for all.

While the men had a two-floor gym with a locker room and pool, their female counterparts had “20 hairdryers and a ping pong table.”

Having a gym at work might seem like a perk, but for years, it was only a perk for the men. To “even things out,” Congress opened a “Ladies Health Facility” in 1965 for the female legislators. While the men had a two-floor gym with a locker room and pool, their female counterparts had, as Colorado representative Pat Schroeder put it, “20 hairdryers and a ping pong table.”

The disparity between the men’s and women’s workout facilities has only been resolved in the last 20 years, thanks in large part to a creative campaign by Representative Barbara Boxer. During a committee meeting in 1985, Boxer and two of her colleagues rewrote the lyrics to “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” about making the male gym co-ed. In an NPR interview in 2012, Boxer sings a stanza that goes like this:

Exercise, glamorize, where to go, will you advise? / Can’t everybody use your gym? / Equal rights, we’ll wear tights, let’s avoid those macho fights.”

Today, Duckworth says, the Architect of the Capitol worked with her to make sure there is wheelchair access at all of the workout facilities—including a handicapped bathroom and changing room in the pool, and a ramp to make the women’s gym on the House side more accessible. And there is part of the struggle of updating the Capitol—because the Senate and House each have their own Rules Committees, updates to the facilities are done on a chamber-specific basis. As the House progresses more quickly to accommodate its current influx of women, the Senate may then start to lag behind. Only recently, says Duckworth, did ranking Democrat Senator Amy Klobuchar “get the wall taken down” on the Senate gym to make it co-ed, while on the House side, many women already use their co-ed gym.

A place of their own

When Duckworth was first in Congress, she could only pump in the women’s reading room, a private, women’s-only space that has served female lawmakers for years. Its official name is the Lindy Clairborne Boggs Reading Room, originally created in 1962 when there were far fewer women working in Congress. The female representatives sought a space to relax and gather that was safe and exclusive to women. At the time, Office H-235 was re-designated as a powder room and contained the only women’s restroom in the building. In 1991, the room was renamed to honor Boggs and her impact on Congress, and was the first room in the Capitol named for a woman. Apartment Therapy has yet to confirm if there are others.

“It became a room where we could meet and just plain relax,” Representative Constance Morella recalled in a 2015 interview with the Office of the Historian. “And when women came out of that room onto Statuary Hall and if you had maybe three of them coming out at one time, the guys around would say, ‘Well, what are they cooking up?’… It became a pretty good symbol.”

“If you had three women coming out of the room at one time, the guys around would say, ‘Well, what are they cooking up?'”

There may not be many women-only rooms, but is there women-only artwork, or other ways that celebrate their contributions? According to Torres, most of the art is “very traditional.”

In fact, of the 100 statues in Statuary Hall, two from each state, only seven are of women (and yes, the states could replace statues if they wanted to). A marble statue celebrating the suffragettes was gifted to the U.S. Capitol by the National Woman’s Party in 1921, only to be moved underground to “The Crypt,” where it remained until 1997, when Congress voted to move it back to the Rotunda.

However on Torres’ long walks to the floor from her office, she passes through the Cannon Tunnel, which houses some of her favorite artwork on the grounds.

“The art I focus on is the art I see every day when I walk from my office to the Capitol to vote,” she says, describing the artwork that lines the tunnel walls. Each congressional district can host an art competition for its high school seniors, and winners get their art posted on the wall of the tunnel.

Newly elected members of the House of Representatives Abigail Spanberger (C) (D-VA) (Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Perhaps not ready, but willing

So, is the Capitol prepared, architecturally-speaking, for the wave of women who will be sworn in come January? Probably not. But will this new class work hard to make meaningful changes? Martha McKenna, democratic strategist, thinks so.

“What feels really different with this group is the selfies,” she said. We spoke in the midst of orientation week, when incoming congresswomen including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were sharing photos, videos, and even livestreams to social media. “It may expose some of the antiquated architecture in the Capitol building,” McKenna explained. “When there’s a barrier or an old-fashioned set up, there’s not going to be much discussion because someone will take a photo. We’ll get to know [the Capitol] in a completely different way because of the willingness of these new members to show us.”

Congresswoman Torres agrees. “We make demands on our business communities to accommodate the needs of their employees,” she said. “We need to look in the mirror and at our own surroundings and see how we can be better prepared for our members.”