No Sweat Equity Is a House Divided


Working together on the floor of the House may prove easy for male and female members of Congress. But when it comes to working out together in the gym, it's a whole different ballgame.

Female lawmakers' annoyance at what they view as lack of equal access to the members-only House gym tumbled out recently during consideration of the annual appropriations legislation that funds the legislative branch.

"What we have here now for women members is not OK," Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.) told the House Appropriations Committee. "The fact is we have a very inferior gym."

As a result, the appropriations bill, as passed by the House, directs the House Wellness Center Committee to report back within 60 days "on any differences in access to the House gym by female members of the House and by male members of the House."

The gym, located in the Rayburn Building, was originally a men-only facility but became coed in 1985 after female members pressed the issue, led by California's Barbara Boxer. The current Democratic senator composed a ditty containing the immortal lines: "Equal rights, we'll wear tights/Let's avoid those macho fights/Can't everybody use your gym?" (In the Senate, there is a small coed gym with male and female locker rooms.)

But although women can now use the House gym, it's difficult to do so. There is no locker room for women on the gym floor, so women have to walk in their exercise clothes through a public corridor to get there. Once there, they must call an attendant to let them in, so that the doors to the men's showers, which are on a walkway right off the basketball court, can be closed.

"You have to be careful or you get a sight you really don't want," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana), an avid gym user.

Then, to get to the pool, women have to use a door that opens from the Rayburn parking garage--the only other door is through the men's locker room. Because the door is kept locked for security reasons, women must first call a gym attendant to let them in.

Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) got so frustrated that she joined a local gym instead.

"I work out at 6 a.m., and the attendant wasn't there to open the doors for me," she said. "Women can't just rush in at lunchtime. It takes us longer to shower, dress and do our hair."

There is a women-only facility, but it is a much smaller weight room and Sanchez complained that the stair machine remained broken for months. But many women feel it is not just an issue over who has more access to step machines: By being discouraged from using the gym, the women also are excluded from business that gets discussed there, over the treadmills.

"It's subtle but very real," said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Atherton). "There's a lot of business that gets done there. . . . It's a place to network."

House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Ney (R-Ohio) pledged that the committee would take the subject very seriously. "It's not a question of male/female equity," he said. "It's a matter of physical structure. They're not excluded from the gymnasium; it's just difficult for them to get there."

He said a solution may be to install a women's locker room off the gym. "I think we can solve this," he said.

And Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), who can be found at the gym most mornings, dismisses many of her colleagues' complaints.

"I've never had a problem," she said. "I've never felt that the men don't want us there. There's never been any jeering. In fact, the men have been very accepting and welcoming.

"There are important issues we have to face over gender inequity--the fact that only 13% of the House is female when it should be 50-50, the fact that women only earn 72 cents to every male dollar. Those are issues. This is not."

Lastly, Maloney had some practical advice to female lawmakers who worry about coming across unwanted sights from the men's locker room: "Just keep your eyes straight ahead."

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