Tuesday night, Vice President Kamala Harris hosted a dinner at her official residence in the Naval Observatory, a 9,000-square-foot, Queen Anne-style home tucked away on a secluded plot a few miles from the White House. She’d invited all 24 women senators to join her at the meal. The event was, like most of these things, mostly a photo op, albeit one with a very specific goal: To reanimate an indistinct notion of “sisterhood” among politicians actively fighting against each other in every venue but this particularly fancy house. As Joni Ernst, who has frequently framed Democratic politicians as nefarious socialists plotting to take over America, told a Kansas outlet before the dinner: “It’s not a political meeting. It is a bipartisan woman’s group.”
Pictures circulated on Twitter of the cheese puffs Harris allegedly cooked herself, plated on gold-rimmed china. Senators posed and smiled politely, a rainbow of pantsuits in sensible bobs. As Politico reported, the event was a call-back to earlier bipartisan dinner parties that had been scrapped during the euphemistically “tough” election cycles of 2016 and 2020. At their height they were hosted in a different senator’s home every six weeks, a potluck where women lawmakers could, I suppose, make small talk and bond over their shared plights.
But as Politico also reported, these self-conscious displays of bonding have a way of falling apart when the women’s actual jobs—politics—got in the way. They were strained during the aggressive campaign against Susan Collins’s re-election, which largely hinged on the Maine senator’s vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, as well as when four Democratic senators ran against each other for president in 2020. A Republican source noted that there was an “unofficial pact” at one point that the women attending these dinners wouldn’t campaign against each other too aggressively—which seems impossible considering the tenor of the moment, in which, to cite a recent example, Senator Marsha Blackburn is blaming Anthony Fauci for colluding with “big tech” to lie about the pandemic.
Certainly, when Blackburn said that Black Lives Matter was a non-profit run by trained Marxists just a short year ago, it was impossible to imagine her sitting down for a nice meal at the same table as Kamala Harris and eating some appetizers that Harris had cooked herself. And yet, particularly in the Biden Administration, bent as it is on unity and aisle-reaching and concession in the wake of an election that was nearly delegitimized by a ravenous power grab by the GOP, politics as usual must go on. You could consider it progress, I suppose, if progress means spending a single evening pretending that Democrats won’t continue to politely cede to Republicans, who in turn will continue their business of laughably framing the Democratic establishment as a socialist conspiracy and refusing to cede a single point.
And for Harris, whose ascendency to the office has often been framed around issues of representation, rebooting an event centered around pure identity, free of any relevant context, is the obvious play. It seems somewhat unlikely that the pageantry of feminist solidarity displayed here is going to change legislation or bring women who deeply oppose each other together; it’s hard to imagine an expertly plated dish of mahi-mahi changing anyone’s ideas about immigration or whether covid-19 was an inside job, which isn’t even to mention the looming fight over voting rights that is widely considered an attempt to forcefully secure a Republican president in four years.
And besides, the event has been expressly framed, by Democrats and Republicans, as an apolitical event where women can “break bread” without discussing their policies. But of course, it’s political, and it brings women together in one specific way: By pointing out to their constituents that they’re women, doing a job, and by providing a whole bunch of photographic evidence to the public that in the face of pressing material issues that will determine the fate of the country, they’re all trying very hard to get along.