The gym at the House of Representatives is one of the few Capitol Hill hangouts where congressmembers from all parties can apolitically commingle. Deep in the bowels of the Rayburn House Office Building, representatives congregate for games of pickup basketball. They spin. They paddle-ball. They once got Xtreme with former House Speaker Paul Ryan. As members return to work out, day after day, the space gives rise to some of the most powerful networking in the world.
But it’s rarely used by women.
That’s because women have nowhere to change.
In 1985, three congresswomen — Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), and Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio) — launched a successful campaign to allow women to use the “men’s gym,” a two-floor facility with a pool and a basketball court. The women’s gym, as Boxer put it, looked more like a hair salon, equipped with a line of “bonnet” hairdryers, and was the size of a large broom closet. But when the women of the 99th Congress gained access later that year, no one built them a locker room: After working out, they had to trek — sweaty and in exercise gear — from the newly co-ed gym on one side of Rayburn, through the basement parking lot, to the women’s changing room on the other.
“It was really inconvenient,” says Kaptur, who used to wear a trench coat to cross the building. “Eventually I decided, ‘I don’t think I want to do that anymore.'"
There are nearly 80 more women serving in the House of Representatives today than there were 34 years ago, when Boxer, Kaptur and Oakar used the gym for the first time. But there is still no women’s locker room. (While there are murmurings of plans to build one, no one could confirm or provide any specifics. The Architect of the Capitol, the office that handles all Capitol renovations, did not respond to a request for comment.)
While the “women’s gym” has been renovated since Boxer and Schroeder used it in the mid-1980s, the space is still far smaller, and more sparsely equipped than its (technically) co-ed counterpart. The room, which Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) describes as barely larger than her office, contains only a few elliptical machines, small weights, and an open space on the floor for, as Barragán told me, “jumping rope.” When she uses the women’s gym, she says it’s mostly empty, devoid of the kind of networking opportunities the co-ed facility is known for.
“It’s a huge problem. I’ll be the first to tell you that I would love to use the co-ed gym,” says Barragán, who exercises regularly but has only used the co-ed gym twice since she started serving in Congress in 2017. When she got elected, she couldn’t wait to use the co-ed gym. During congressional orientation, she’d heard about Paul Ryan’s group workout routine, and then-Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s spin class. “Everyone said, ‘Go to the co-ed gym. It’s a great place to build relationships.’ And I was like, absolutely. I’m in.”
But then Barragán experienced the awkward predicament of having nowhere to shower. The whole thing is particularly uncomfortable, she says, because of the large group of male staffers waiting outside the gym in the morning, ready to brief their members on the day ahead. “So think for a minute: You’re a female member. You go, you work out, you’re all sweaty. And you come out and all the male staffers are sitting right there.”
Crossing the Rayburn building, which is open to the public, congresswomen are likely to run into their colleagues, as well as members of the press. There are many congresswomen, Barragán told me, who opt out of the co-ed gym for this specific reason.
“I have no desire to walk through Rayburn after I’ve worked out,” says Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.). While she will occasionally use the co-ed gym when Congress isn’t in session and no one is around, she generally sticks to the much smaller women’s gym, even though it lacks the barbells and other large weights that she likes to use for her Crossfit training.
Without their own locker room, congresswomen also have to budget considerably more time for a trip to the co-ed gym. Instead of walking directly to the gym from their office, as the men do, they have to factor in a pit stop at the locker room across the building — and another one when they’re done working out. “When you’re a member, you have a very finite amount of time,” says Barragán. It’s already hard to find time to exercise, she says, without the additional 20 minutes or so that it takes to trek across Rayburn and back.
The co-ed gym has been a much-beloved hub of bipartisanship for decades. “It was a place to BS together, to talk together ... Democrat, Republican, it didn’t matter,” says former Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.), who served in Congress from 1975 to 1993. “In the gym, you talked to everyone.” Whenever the members had a break on the House floor, he says, Russo and a group of his colleagues would rush down to the gym for a game of basketball. Some of his favorite memories are from impromptu basketball games played at 2 a.m., when members were working through the night.
“The relationships and friendships that I forged in the gym will last forever,” Russo says.
Soon after arriving in Congress in 1983, when there were just 22 women in the House of Representatives, Kaptur realized that some of the most important conversations — and relationships — were coming out of the men’s gym.
“The gym was where men got together and made deals,” Kaptur says. “And so the idea was: If they’re making deals in there, we’ve got to be there, too.”
Gym-based networking became even more important in the mid-1990s, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich began publicly berating congressmembers who chose to move their families to Washington, D.C. Up until that point, it had been fairly common for representatives to live in the nation’s capital, where they’d get to know each other’s families and send their kids to the same schools. Opportunities for inter-party hangouts abounded. After most congressmembers moved their families back to their home states, the gym became one of the last Hill locales conducive to bipartisan friendships.
As is true most anywhere else, friendships on Capitol Hill often lead to professional opportunities. Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), was a regular at Sinema’s spin classes. When he was looking for a co-sponsor for a bill, he reached out to his spin teacher, a democrat from Arizona.
“Because of our friendship that we built up there, she signed on to it,” Katko told USA Today in 2017. “That’s how bipartisanship works.”
The first time she stepped into the “men’s gym,” back in 1985, Kaptur says, it felt like a “moon landing. ... Like we were making the first foray into formerly sacrosanct land.” As the freshman women of the 116th congress develop their own workout routines, Kaptur hopes they will continue to use the co-ed gym.