The problem: women’s efforts to speak to Congress about the power dynamics of sex have mostly fallen on deaf ears.
Whether women testify before Congress about sex they wanted to have or about sex they did not want to have, the process has led to a uniform result: an (almost always) all-white male panel decides the validity and importance of women’s words and women’s experiences.
Despite this, it is essential to continue these conversations, because women’s political rights are intricately bound to the right to control what happens to their own bodies.
Women’s political and physical rights have long been linked. Throughout the 19th century, women regularly testified before state and federal legislatures demanding changes to marriage and divorce laws and, later, reforms like temperance because many women needed a way out of abusive marriages and protection from drunken husbands.
By the end of the 19th century, reformist women had determined that attaining the vote would be a more effective way to secure these basic rights than repeatedly having to explain to male lawmakers why they needed them.
But even after women gained a voice at the ballot box, men still had authority over their bodies. In the 1970s, women once again attempted to testify before Congress about their intimate lives. This time the issue was birth control.
Alarmed by Barbara Seaman’s 1969 book “The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill,” Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) convened Senate hearings in 1970 to look into the birth control pill’s safety. But amazingly, Nelson did not call any women, not even Seaman, to testify. Instead the all-male senate panel listened to a parade of male doctors and pharmaceutical representatives describe what it was like to be on the pill.
Outraged, women witnessing the hearing began speaking up from the audience. Nelson threatened to have them expelled. Silenced by Congress, women raised public awareness about the dangers of the early pill through their savvy use of media. As a result, pharmaceutical companies drastically reduced the level of hormones in the pill, making it much safer. The FDA began providing inserts listing the possible side effects of the pill, and Seaman and others founded the Women’s Health Collective to advocate for women’s right to be informed, active agents in their own healthcare.
But change in Congress has been more difficult.
Anita Hill’s landmark testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991 remains a vivid case study of misogyny, racism and mansplaining on Capitol Hill. Hill’s courageous testimony did not persuade the Judiciary Committee that Thomas lacked the moral character required of a Supreme Court Justice, but she eventually triumphed in the court of public opinion. Her testimony forced corporate and mainstream America to recognize sexual harassment as a crime.
It also inspired women to run for office. Just a year later, so many women ran for — and were elected to — Congress that 1992 was hailed as “the year of the woman.”
But the election of four new women to the Senate (for a grand total of six) could not change an institution that refused to acknowledge women’s sexual experiences as credible. Why? Because doing so demanded meaningful and substantive changes in how this male-dominated institution worked.
Consider for example, how during the “Year of the Woman,” over 20 women, mostly Hill staffers, approached the Senate Ethics Committee with accounts of sexual misconduct by Senator Bob Packwood (R-Ore.). In spite of overwhelming evidence from a growing number of accusers, the Ethics Committee took more than three years to conclude its investigation.
Finally, after numerous prompts by Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the bipartisan committee voted unanimously to expel Packwood in 1995 and he resigned. In the end, though, what doomed Packwood was not so much the words of his many female accusers — but his own diary. After months of stalling, Packwood turned over his diaries to an independent examiner, Kenneth Starr (yes, that Ken Starr). The diaries detailed some of Packwood’s sexual misconduct, corroborating the women’s accounts.
But the Packwood case actually made it more difficult to file such charges. In 1995, Congress passed legislation requiring anyone wishing to file a complaint against a member to first go through months of mediation and counseling.
It is time for another reckoning.
Last year, prompted by mounting accusations against members of Congress and the resulting resignation of eight congressmen, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) testified before her colleagues on the House Administration Committee about the sexual harassment she endured while a congressional staffer in the 1970s. Speier argued that the time had come to change the way Congress investigated such charges.
Speier had been introducing this legislation since 2014 to no avail. But #MeToo America changed this. After news organizations exposed just how many harassment charges had been filed against members of Congress and how much taxpayer money had been paid in settlements, the House and the Senate speedily passed Speier’s’ bill in 2017.
Now that Congress has improved the way it handles sexual harassment and assault charges internally, can it better adjudicate sexual harassment and assault charges against others?
Democrats have evolved since Joe Biden chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee during Anita Hill’s testimony, but having the Judiciary Committee conduct this week’s hearings still raises deep and fair skepticism.
Lawmakers do not have a strong record when it comes to passing meaningful legislation to combat sexual harassment and assault. In the 27 years since the Navy Tailhook scandal, for example, and in spite of annual reports documenting appalling rates of assault in the military, Congress has not passed significant changes to the process by which military courts adjudicate sexual assault. This inaction has occurred, in spite of repeated proposals like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act. Further, the Trump administration has rescinded Obama-era guidelines requiring universities to take more serious action against sexual assault, and the Republican-sponsored PROSPER Act would further erode universities’ ability to fairly and efficiently handle cases of assault. Meanwhile, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), first passed in 1994, is languishing in a House subcommittee and scheduled to expire at the end of September.
Women have come a long way since asking lawmakers for permission to divorce their husbands to escape violence in the 19th century or the dismissal of sexual harassment allegations during Anita Hill’s testimony. But these transformations have come from brave women demanding change by forcing a conversation about sex.
And the deck is still stacked against women. While four members of the Democratic minority on the Judiciary Committee are now women, all of the majority Republican members are men.
And it’s questionable whether having four women out of 21 members will enable the Judiciary Committee to conduct the hearing in such a way that it does not seem like an assault against Dr. Ford. But if it fails, the voting booth this November will provide another opportunity for the voices of women to be heard.