What Were the Naked Male Senators Thinking?


For those of you who have not heard, the Senate of the United States has a private pool, that until recently did not allow women. (I learned about this in a great Politico article. If you haven’t read it, you should.)

Banning women from the pool isn’t entirely shocking to me. I am used to people finding a reason, any reason,  to keep women out of public spaces. But the reason for this particular exclusion was astonishing.

Some of the male senators liked to swim naked. That was it – they wanted to give their junior members a little submarine training.

This strikes me as something so deeply filled with symbolism and it offers such tantalizing clues into the thinking of the leaders of our country, that I feel we have to talk about it.

Here is what a reasonable person would have thought when women joined the Senate: “Ah, there are now female senators. They might want to swim at some point. Time to suit up, boys!”

Instead, they had to have thinking something along these lines: “So, some girls have joined our club. We cannot let them change how we behave in any way. So my preference for swimming naked is more important than their right to enjoy all the rights and privileges of being a senator. I want to swim naked so they will not be allowed to swim at all.”

Pools are a big deal in the South where I come from. They are scarce, mostly enjoyed by those wealthy enough to own a private pool or to belong to a club. I remember how shocked I was by the number of community pools when I lived in Britain.

If there is one area of the country that should have a lot of pools, it is the South. Swimming is one of the few safe forms of outside exercise in the overwhelming heat of the South.

But the reason the South has so few municipal pools is because for decades after segregation, white people would rather go without pools than have to share them with black people. They found that they could handle sharing a restaurant or a theater. But they filled in the pools with cement rather than allowing them to be integrated. That is how strongly they felt about sharing the same water with a black person.

In his book “Contested Waters” Dr. Jeffery Wilste talks about the racial history of pools. Before segregation, pools were extremely common even in black neighborhoods.  But when segregation crumbled, pools became a flash point for violence and racially motivated closings. The issue of pools has always been an emotionally and socially laden symbol of privilege and othering.

Sharing a pool, Wilste reminds us, is visually and physically intimate. Also, many people fear that water will transmit something, that you will catch cooties. Swimming in the same pool can be intolerable with someone you see as “the other.”

Now imagine that the rule in the Senate had been: No black senators because that makes some of the white senators unhappy. That kind of racism never would have been tolerated. And rightly so.

But discrimination against women, well that is just fine.

Male senators could not handle the intimacy of sharing a pool with women. And so they called on that old tried and crude defense – they took out their pensis. The symbolism of their actions shows how much they needed to keep women at a distance, as the other.

And now consider what that rule meant for incoming female senators.  Undoubtedly they were told that this is the way it had always been and they were strongly discouraged from changing it. They had to wonder what it would cost them to be “the woman who made an issue of it.” Think how much other sexism there must have been if this is the one that they let this slide.

But also consider how subtly betrayed they were by liberal men in the Senate. Why didn’t Joe Biden force a change? Why not Barney Frank? (Edit: Because he wss in the House. Why did I think he was a Senator?) Where were these men who supposedly believe in equal rights for women when there was a real issue of equality that was so easily fixed?

Excluding female senators from the pool so that the male senators could free their willies is so much more than just a procedural point.

Pools matter for the same reasons that bath houses used to matter. There is something  radically equalizing about sharing the same water. They are  symbolic in the same way that immersion in water by baptism is symbolic.

Female senators have had the right to share the same pool water as men for 6 years. Black men have had that right for at least 40 years.

Think about the free willies keeping female members out of the Senate pool next time someone tries to tell you why we don’t need feminism.