The last time two women led a House committee, the year was 1977 and the panel was the Select Committee on the House Beauty Shop.
Forty-two years later, another female duo is in control.
This time it’s one of the most powerful committees in Congress – the House Appropriations Committee – which is at the center of congressional power and spending.
Rep. Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, is the committee’s first female chair in history, and Rep. Kay Granger of Texas its first female ranking Republican.
When we told Lowey and Granger about the historical nugget of the House Beauty Salon, instead of noting the now absurd notion of female lawmakers chairing a Beauty Salon Committee, they both laughed and lamented the fact that the House Beauty Salon no longer exists.
“Too bad it was disbanded. I could use it,” joked Lowey, looking at Granger who laughed and agreed.
“I never knew there was a House Beauty Shop,” she added.
It was the kind of knowing female moment Lowey and Granger share frequently.
Together they are trying to chart a collaborative path at a moment of hyper-charged partisanship on the cusp of another divisive presidential campaign – a partnership they described in a joint interview for CNN’s Badass Women of Washington series.
It’s an alliance that is already contributing to results.
Lowey and Granger were two of the four leaders in the room Monday night hashing out a bipartisan border security deal aimed at keeping the government open ahead of a Friday deadline.
The two lawmakers told us that if they had been left alone to solve the border security fight, they’d have gotten it done sooner, and faster.
“Give us an hour. 30 minutes,” declared Granger.
Nodding in agreement, Lowey added, “We’re very straightforward. We also know our own position and each other’s position.”
The Democrat and Republican come from very different places ideologically, but share sensibilities as women: work together to make things happen.
“Nita always said, ‘We’re gonna be friends. We’re going to show how well two women can get things done,’” Granger recalls Lowey telling her when it became clear the two of them would lead the committee.
“We’re going to disagree but not be disagreeable and work things out. Do it on time, do it the right way,” added Lowey.
When it comes to how much and where to spend taxpayer dollars, bipartisanship is no easy task.
The House Appropriations Committee is tasked with one of Congress’ most basic functions – the power of the purse. Lowey and Granger are in charge of shepherding through the House twelve bills funding every part of the federal government.
Ice picks and knife fights
But don’t let their congeniality fool you. These are two tough-as-nails veteran lawmakers. Granger says she gets a kick out of watching men approach Lowey during committee meetings and “misunderstand that beautiful smile.”
“I’d say he’s headed for such a surprise, because she’s a very tough lady,” remembers Granger.
In fact, Lowey – a staunch advocate for abortion rights – tussled so much with the late Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican who was equally passionate in his views against abortion – that Hyde gave her an ice pick as a gag gift, which she still has in her office.
“He said, ‘Watch out for that smile. She has a silver pick in her hand,’” Lowey remembers Hyde saying.
We joked that Granger, the first female mayor of Fort Worth, Texas, is so tough she probably has steel-toed cowboy boots.
“One member of leadership said, ‘If you’re gonna be in a knife fight, make sure Kay is on your team.’” Granger replied.
First elected to the House in 1996, Granger remembers talking to a male GOP leader about her committee assignments. He told her that there had never been a woman on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee.
“I said, ‘Well, that’s stupid.’ He said, ‘I knew you’d say exactly that.’” recalls Granger.
When Lowey first came to Congress 30 years ago, she immediately saw the real world problem of not having enough women lawmakers.
In the early 1990s she, along with two other committee Democrats, Nancy Pelosi and Rosa DeLauro, learned that women were ignored in medical research.
“We discovered that all the tests that were done with the National Institutes of Health were not all done on women and men,” Lowey said.
“Even the lab rats were all male.”
“True story,” she said, responding to our disbelief.
Lowey, along with Pelosi and DeLauro (who were nicknamed “Delosi”) worked together to change that – to make sure government funded scientists were studying both genders.
“You look at heart disease or many illnesses, women have symptoms different from men and they respond different to treatments. I was very proud of that,” Lowey said.
Mentors for younger women
Lowey, age 81 and Granger, 76, each have three children and 13 grandchildren between them. Like most grandmothers, they’re doting, but that’s not how they bond with one another. They’re too busy.
When asked if they spend time swapping grandchildren stories, they both paused, looked at one another, and seemed genuinely surprised to realize the answer was “no.”
“We really have not done that. Isn’t that something?” Lowey asked.
Like many of their generation, they both raised their children before running for Congress, and say they marvel at the influx of new female lawmakers, especially those with young children.
They both say they feel a sense of responsibility to mentor their younger colleagues.
“I interact with the young women, the middle-aged women, and reach out and try and be as helpful as I can,” said Lowey.
“Many of them are raising children at the same time as they are commuting to Washington,” she added. “The challenges are great, but they manage to be women, to be girls, to be mothers, and to be members of Congress.”
Granger concedes the female dynamic is different on her side of the aisle. Out of the 102 women now in the House, only 13 are Republicans, which she called “very disappointing.”
“We also lost some battles. Some really wonderful people that were recruited, women that didn’t make it. We have a lot of work to do,” Granger said flatly.
Still, the fact that she is the top Republican on a critical committee is a triumph, especially given the dynamics when she was a freshman congresswoman.
“When I first came, because I was new, I was asked to speak on the House on different issues, and Newt Gingrich, then, was speaker. He called and said, ‘I’d like you to speak on….’ I said, ‘Is it health care or is it education?’ I said, ‘Women are involved in other issues, too.’ He kind of said, ‘hmm, I didn’t think of that,’” said Granger.
Some twenty years later, Granger beat out several GOP men to become the House Appropriations Committee’s ranking Republican.
“I never want to be elected because I’m a woman,” Granger said. “I never want to be excluded because I’m a woman. I went into it that way, saying I can do the best job. I have the best experience. I had the broadest experience. I’d served on eight of the subcommittees, the 12 subcommittees.”
And though Granger readily admits that she would have preferred that Republicans kept control of the House and that she was chairwoman, she said publicly at the first committee meeting, “If it couldn’t be me, Nita, I’m glad it’s you.”
Later, Granger told us that the first person she heard from when she was elected ranking Republican by her GOP colleagues, was Lowey.
“She was the first one to call and congratulate me. So, we have that sort of relationship. I love that.”
Granger even had a special gavel made as a gift for Lowey, which she keeps on display in her office.
We wanted to know if Lowey actually uses it in the hearings.
Without missing a beat, she replied with an attempt at a menacing smile.
“I use it for a lot of things.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the year in which Rep. Kay Granger was first elected to Congress. It was in 1996.