Kyrsten Sinema’s Lasting Legacy for Women

The Arizona senator is making it harder, not easier, to elect more females to Congress.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema has put herself at the center of political news coverage—along with Senator Joe Manchin—by stymying Democratic Party efforts to pass reconciliation legislation. While her intransigence threatens to derail President Joe Biden’s agenda, Sinema’s behavior could also damage the political fortunes of future women candidates.

Over the past six months, Sinema has attempted to cultivate a reputation as the ultimate independent—she won’t vote down the party line for either Democrats or Republicans, and she always makes up her own mind. In the process, though, she’s also convinced many observers that she doesn’t take her job seriously and, as one writer put it, “treats the job as a game.”

In May, for example, Sinema missed the vote to establish the January 6 committee for an unspecified family matter. She has missed 8.4 percent of the votes this term, which makes her the 15th most absent member of the Senate. In 2020, she was the 6th most absent Democratic senator, behind Senators Harris, Booker, Warren, and Klobuchar, who were all campaigning for president. This month, she left D.C. while Democrats scrambled late into the night to find a compromise on the infrastructure and reconciliation bills. While remaining one of the major roadblocks to both bills, she instead spent the day at a high-end Phoenix resort and spa to raise money for her political action committee. Then, this week, as negotiations continued, the senator spent the week on a fund-raising trip in Europe.

Every member of Congress occasionally misses work, so if she appeared dedicated to her colleagues and constituents, those absences might not matter. But her behavior gives credence to the concerns about her commitment to her role as an elected official. When reporters asked the senator about her position on the bills—or, more colloquially, where she “stood”—she snidely replied, “I’m right here in front of the elevator.”

A few other examples stand out. In March, Sinema voted down an increase to the minimum wage. But she didn’t just vote against Democratic policy, she did so in memorable fashion, by giving a thumbs-down with a dramatic knee bend. In May, she wore a purple wig for a confirmation vote on the Senate floor, allegedly to “set an example of social distancing from hair salons.” The next month, Sinema attended a briefing at the White House to announce the infrastructure deal. All eyes were drawn to her while President Biden spoke because she was wearing a bright red tank top. Color or panache isn’t the problem. Instead, Sinema’s behavior implies a level of disrespect to the history and gravitas of the White House—and the moment.

In an ideal world, her appearance and clothing wouldn’t matter. For the most part, male politicians’ seriousness is not judged based on their clothing. (One exception to this was the conservative outrage over Barack Obama’s tan suit.) But unfortunately, women and people of color are judged more harshly on their appearance. They are also more likely to be labeled emotional, strident, angry, and unpredictable. Studies show that women are judged on more criteria than men.Successful women have been adapting to these expectations for centuries.

The expectations affect most women and people of color in positions of authority, but especially women in politics, where the specter of “likability” looms large. After Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election in 2016, many voters who stayed home confessed that they just didn’t like her. Four years later, most Democratic primary voters prioritized “electability.” One poll found that two-thirds of the party’s voters thought only a white man could beat President Donald Trump.

Smart female politicians understand the double standard and strive to ensure that their behavior doesn’t limit the candidates or officials who will succeed them. In 1933, Frances Perkins took office as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and the first female cabinet secretary. While trying to address the labor crises posed by the Great Depression, she knew that one misstep might be held against future female cabinet secretaries—so she tread carefully.

Nearly 90 years later, Vice President Kamala Harris serves as another important first. While she has largely avoided discussing the extra burdens on her tenure in high office, it hasn’t escaped her staff’s notice. Her chief spokesperson, Symone Sanders, acknowledged that Harris’s uniqueness “does bring along criticism.” Harris has declared that her first priority is to help Joe Biden be a successful president, but she is also eager to ensure that while she is “the first woman in this office, [she] will not be the last.”

Given that women currently make up only 24 percent of U.S. senators and roughly 27 percent of representatives, all women in power should strive to make it easier for other women coming up behind them. Unfortunately, Senator Sinema either doesn’t appreciate the impact her behavior will have on other women or, more likely, she simply doesn’t care.

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Lindsay M. Chervinsky

Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. is a presidential historian and Scholar in Residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College and the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.