The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women on Capitol Hill want real change this time. Will it happen?

A majority of Senate Democrats on Dec. 6 called on Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to resign as he faces multiple allegations of sexual harassment. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde, Jordan Frasier/The Washington Post)

Patty Murray (Wash.) leapt onto the national stage 25 years ago by challenging a fellow Democrat in the wake of the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee’s handling of sexual harassment charges during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings

After the incumbent abandoned the Senate race amid his own sexual misconduct scandal, Murray rode to victory in 1992 along with a record number of women in Congress.

On Wednesday, Murray helped lead the denunciation of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), declaring that an alleged “persistent pattern” of groping women made him unfit for office. She made an all-too-familiar plea for politicians to live up to their words.

“Our history, our culture is changing so dramatically in this country, so fast,” Murray told reporters Wednesday. “And I think it is a time for elected officials, at all levels, to stand up and take responsibility for who we are and what we stand for.”

For Murray and other lawmakers, the question now is whether, a quarter century after the first great reckoning of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, the culture will actually change more than it did then.

Now, 105 women serve in Congress. Thousands more work here as staffers. Most want fundamental change.

They want misbehavior and inappropriate advances to be recognized immediately as outside the bounds. They want to be able to raise concerns immediately without fear of repercussion. They want the suppression of stories of misconduct to become a relic of the past.

Most of all, they want this latest period of reckoning to not give way to the same old behavior in years to come.

“This is a historic moment, where women who have been silenced for far too long are standing up and speaking out,” Murray said. “And I think it’s the time for our culture to change, and that includes elected officials.”

Politicians accused of misconduct keep quiet and hope everyone forgets. It rarely works.

Much of the current discussion has centered on who resigns and who gets to cling to their seats in the House and Senate, even if it means suffering the shame of an ethics investigation.

Most of his colleagues expect Franken to resign Thursday after he announced a major speech was coming. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the dean of the House, resigned Tuesday after a prolonged battle against charges that spanned at least two decades of propositioning young female staff.

Others are digging in for a fight. Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) has accused Democratic leaders of knowing about allegations that he made inappropriate advances toward his campaign fundraiser. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) has accepted no culpability for an $84,000 taxpayer-funded settlement with a former staffer who alleged that he made inappropriate sexual remarks. Now that the settlement has been revealed, he said he will repay the Treasury out of his own funds.

Moreover, some lawmakers see Thomas still holding his lifetime appointment, while in Alabama, Republican Roy Moore might win a special Senate election Tuesday despite allegations that he pursued sexual relationships with teenage girls as a 30-something local prosecutor.

And, of course, down Pennsylvania Avenue, President Trump sits in the Oval Office despite being caught on tape last decade bragging about assaulting women.

“We’re learning a lot about what happens in workplaces, including in the White House and elsewhere,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), shortly after joining the chorus of Democrats demanding that Franken resign.

Murray’s entire career arc is filled with male misconduct. Much has changed in the culture of Congress and Washington, but some things are harder to root out.

She campaigned in her 1992 Senate race as a “mom in tennis shoes” — a label that stuck and came to epitomize a low-wattage but hard-working style that has produced a litany of important bipartisan legislation over the past five years.

Actually, that label came from a 1980 interaction with a male lawmaker in the state capital when she was lobbying against proposed education cuts. “You’re just a mom in tennis shoes,” the lawmaker said.

Then, after watching Anita Hill’s testimony in the fall of 1991 against Thomas, Murray jumped into the primary against then-Sen. Brock Adams (D), believing that only women could change the Senate culture. By March, Adams withdrew from the race in disgrace after allegations that he had sexual encounters with women after drugging them.

"Next January, I'm going to take my tennis shoes back to the United States Senate," Murray told a cheering crowd the night she won the nomination.

Congressional leaders face internal pressure to act on harassment

In early 1994, Murray had her own run-in with sexual harassment on the Hill, according to “Women on the Hill,” the Clara Bingham book about how female lawmakers dealt with the culture. Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, then 91 and the longest-serving senator, put his arm around Murray and cupped her breast in the senators-only elevator. “Are you married, little lady?” Thurmond asked,

Other female senators wanted Murray to expose Thurmond, but, after staff-to-staff communication, Thurmond apologized to Murray, according to Bingham’s account. In a 1996 interview for that book, Murray denied that she was accosted. “I think he was merely hanging on tighter than he should have been,” she said at the time.

In 1995, Bob Packwood was pushed out of the Senate over similar allegations as those waged against Adams, but over the next two decades, the powder keg of sexual harassment receded from the headlines.

There were instances of misbehavior. One senator was arrested in a sex sting in a men’s airport restroom. One was accused of hiring prostitutes. Another had an affair with his wife’s best friend. A male House member was caught sending explicit instant messages to underage male pages. Former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert served a prison term for paying hush money to a man that he sexually abused as a teenager.

But they were isolated and unique to those accused, giving the Capitol a false sense that everything was just fine with the other congressional offices.

Then came Trump’s campaign. Then came the reports against Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation in Hollywood. A bipartisan collection of female lawmakers — led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) — warned that predators roamed the halls of Congress, too.

They passed resolutions demanding mandatory training for lawmakers and staff. Then the stories burst into the open — in both parties and in both the House and the Senate.

Murray is now the highest-ranking woman in Senate leadership. Her voice carries great weight on most issues, including this one. This time, Murray expects zero tolerance to really mean something.

“It means that we have to hold people accountable for their behavior that is not acceptable to us,” she said.

Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the total number of women serving in Congress.

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