Maybe it's just a slow legislative session, or maybe people are just tired of talking about the gasoline tax. Still, the angry reaction to The Post's recent article about sexism and sexual harassment in the General Assembly seems out of all proportion to the problems the story brought to light.
In the first place, the story was not about sexual escapades or after-hours nightlife. It was about unwelcome sexual advances, suggestive comments and pranks that the women who work in the General Assembly say they must routinely fend off if they are to do their jobs effectively.
In the second place, the article noted that a small number of legislators were subjects of criticism. And it noted that those few lawmakers' inability to work with women as peers was, according to the women, creating problems in winning approval for so-called women's legislation.
Take the Equal Rights Amendment, for instance.
The women interviewed for The Post article were hooting at a remark made a few weeks ago by Sen. A. Joe Canada (R-Virginia Beach), who took to the Senate floor to oppose the ERA.
"Women in Virginia don't have equal rights, they have superior rights," Canada proclaimed just before the nearly all-male Senate defeated the amendment, the eighth straight year the legislature has rejected it.
Even women who don't support the ERA concede that state laws hardly do them any favors.
"They must be talking about their mothers," says Barbara Pratt.
Pratt, you will remember, was the Common Cause lobbyist who had the misfortune to ride in an elevator with House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss Jr. (D-Norfolk).
According to Pratt, Moss kissed her on the cheek and chalked up the gesture to "an uncontrollable urge." He went even further by bringing the incident up at a subcommittee meeting Pratt attended, once again embarrassing her. Pratt was at the meeting to talk about legislation, but the majority leader wanted to talk about what "turns me on," she said.
Moss' problem, says a close friend, is that "he's a 51-year-old Southern male and he thinks it's cool to act like that."
Unfortunately, that kind of problem usually involves others who would just as soon be left alone.
Which is really the point of this whole thing, for when male legislators got mad after the article was published, who did they get mad at? The women, of course.
No Virginia gentleman stood to deplore the kind of incidents described in the article -- incidents that ranged from the elevator encounter to far more serious stories about sexual harassment of female aides and teen-aged girls who serve as pages.
Instead, the women legislators, lobbyists, aides and pages were blamed for daring to talk to the press. The victims were made to feel guilty, and one woman legislator even speculated that her appearance in the story had probably set her back three years in her efforts to establish a significant role in the General Assembly.
The angriest legislators went so far as to accuse some of the women mentioned in the story of trying to "pass themselves off as sex objects." Thus one lawmaker, noting that he didn't find any of the women in the article particularly attractive, felt he was on safe ground attacking the story as preposterous.
A columnist for a Richmond newspaper also missed the point. So eager to have a little fun with a column headlined, "Kiss and Tell," he simply ignored some pretty disturbing facts, so he could blithely opine that "boys will be boys."
All of which would be fine if we were talking about kids instead of men -- and public officials at that.
By far the most disturbing aspect of the story and its aftermath concerns the young girls who serve as pages. One can well argue that women can take care of themselves, but what about these 12 or 14 year olds?
They come down here, honor students all, to watch democracy in action. Instead, as the story made clear, some of these girls are being pinched or otherwise sexually harassed (like the page who was taking a delegate's sandwich order and was told to lean over so the honorable so-and-so could look down her blouse).
When the article disclosing the pages' problems was published, one young man, who said he was an assistant supervisor for the pages, attacked the story as something that had been made up. He wanted to know which pages had talked, and he seemed more interested in disproving the story than in protecting the pages from further abuse.
"We've talked to every page that's ever had this happen to her (presumably he meant pinching) and they all say they never talked to you," he told a reporter.
Later, the two reporters who wrote the original story heard that the girl pages in the House had all been individually instructed never to talk to reporters again. Is it any wonder they are reluctant to tell their superiors the names of the offending legislators?
So it is obvious that neither the women nor the young girls will get much sympathy on this issue from the male-dominated General Assembly.
Still, many women here cheered the story, one reporter sent Godiva chocolates to The Post writers and others sneaked up to the reporters in the snack bar to says thanks.
If anyone disputed the claims, the American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project didn't. It offered, in fact, to pursue the charges and urged women to bring their complaints directly to its Richmond office.
Karlyn Barker and Pat Bauer were the two reporters who wrote The Post's story on sexual harassment in the General Assembly.