In California, 140 women ranging from legislators to lobbyists signed a letter complaining of everything from unwanted physical contact to “promises, or threats” made to ensure they succumbed to the pressure and did not complain about their treatment. In Illinois, a similar letter was endorsed by more than 160 women involved in the state’s politics.
Meanwhile, Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a state representative in the Arizona legislature, stepped forward to claim “unwanted sexual advances” and “lewd and suggestive comments regarding my body and appearance” since she was first elected in 2011. Other such allegations have surfaced from in Kansas, Massachusetts, Oregon and Rhode Island.
These sexual harassment complaints are all the same in any number of depressing ways, including this: If women complained, they rarely got far. Ugenti-Rita, for one, says the Arizona state Republican leadership says they couldn’t help her. In California, the women describe an insider-friendly process that helped so few people, almost no one even bothered to report incidents. As for Congress, this past winter Roll Call published a poll where 1 in 6 of the congressional staffers who responded to their survey said they had been the victims of sexual harassment.
Then there are the responses that typically greets these allegations. When New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in 2014 revealed a number of instances of unwanted touching and comments about her appearance by her fellow legislators, the first response from any number of political reporters wasn’t support, but doubt. In other cases, the prospect of sexual harassment is greeted with a shrug. When Kellyanne Conway defended Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” tape with Billy Bush as just talk, while claiming that members of Congress regularly do such things as “rubbing up against girls, sticking their tongues down women’s throats,” very few seemed interested in finding out who, exactly, she was talking about. It was just another day in Washington.
Finally, however, many are stepping forward now to say procedures need to be changed. There are proposals from numerous statehouses for mandatory sexual harassment training for legislators, staffers and lobbyists. Others are calling, more practically and helpfully, for changing the procedures around reporting and evaluating sexual harassment claims in political settings. California Rep. Jackie Speier (D), for one, says she will introduce legislation that would give the Congressional Office of Compliance more power in investigations then it currently enjoys. (Congress follows its own guidelines for sexual harassment charges, not standard federal law.)
All this is good. But here’s an even better way to fight sexual harassment in politics: Elect more women to office, and put more of them in positions of power.
Think about it this way: It’s not for nothing many call politics show business for ugly people. Both Hollywood and politics share certain similarities: there are many young people who want to get in and will do what it takes to make it; the hoards of young men and women need to appeal to major power brokers to make their career goals a reality. As Sheryl Gay Stolberg recently noted:
Experts in employment law and advocates of women’s rights say there are particular reasons that harassment can flourish in politics. At its core, sexual harassment is about power, and politics is the ultimate power profession. It draws in young people who are eager to advance and reluctant to make waves. And political organizations rise and fall around the fortunes of one central figure, a hierarchy that discourages reporting of harassment, because if the boss gets in trouble, everyone’s job is at risk.
Women make up only 20 percent of Congress, and numbers in many statehouses are not significantly different. These numbers are similar to Hollywood, where the Directors Guild reports in 2015-2016, a mere 17 percent of episodic television programs were directed by women.
In politics, as in Hollywood, it’s not just the bad apples that allow sexual harassment to continue on; it’s also the power structure of the business, and the behaviors the men in charge don’t think to question until, suddenly, the rush of attention forces them to once again take a look. We’ve had these moments before, after all. But when the attention fades, it goes back to business as usual.
No one is suggesting women are perfect bosses — they most certainly are not. But if women could achieve parity in politics, the sheer amount of sexual harassment in that arena would decline. It’s not just that we need more women running for office. We need them to win.