"It's About Power" - Congresswomen Discuss Being Sexually Harassed By Male Colleagues

The national conversation surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace shows no signs of slowing down - if anything, it is spreading from beyond the media and entertainment industries, where the revelations about alleged serial predator Harvey Weinstein triggered a wave of accusations against him and many other powerful industry figures, including directors Brett Ratner and James Toback, as well as actor Kevin Spacey.

In a stunning report published earlier today, the Associated Press reports about four Congresswomen who shared their stories of harassment by male colleagues, some of which even unfolded openly on the floor of the House.

Three of the women have since left elected office, though one - California Rep. Linda Sanchez - continues to serve. The three who left are former California Senator Barbara Boxer, former California Rep. Mary Bono (who won the seat formerly held by her late husband, Sonny Bono, after his death) and former California Rep. Hilda Solis.

As reports flow almost daily of harassment or worse by men in entertainment, business and the media, one current and three former female lawmakers tell The Associated Press that they, too, have been harassed or subjected to hostile sexual comments — by fellow members of Congress.


The incidents occurred years or even decades ago, usually when the women were young newcomers to Congress. They range from isolated comments at one hearing, to repeated unwanted come-ons, to lewd remarks and even groping on the House floor. Coming amid an intensifying national focus on sexual harassment and gender hostility in the workplace, the revelations underscore that no woman is immune, even at the highest reaches of government.


“This is about power,” said former California Sen. Barbara Boxer, after describing an incident at a hearing in the 1980s where a male colleague made a sexually suggestive comment. The colleague, using the traditional congressional parlance, said he wanted to “associate” himself with her remarks — adding afterward that he also wanted to “associate with the gentle lady."

The women declined to name their harassers - but at least two of the men continue to serve in the House. And none of the women reported what happened, and some noted it was not clear where they would lodge such a complaint."

“When I was a very new member of Congress in my early 30s, there was a more senior member who outright propositioned me, who was married, and despite trying to laugh it off and brush it aside it, would repeat. And I would avoid that member,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.


She added that she would warn other new female members about the lawmaker in question, but she declined to identify him, while saying he remains in Congress.


“I just don’t think it would be helpful” to call the lawmaker out by name, Sanchez said. “The problem is, as a member there’s no HR department you can go to, there’s nobody you can turn to. Ultimately they’re employed by their constituents."


Sanchez also said that a different male colleague repeatedly ogled her, and at one point touched her inappropriately on the House floor, while trying to make it appear accidental. She declined to identify the lawmaker but said he was no longer in Congress. 

Bono said she chose not to report her harasser because he stopped his demeaning behavior after Bono confronted him about it.

Bono said she ultimately confronted her colleague on the House floor after he’d made repeated harassing comments.


Bono, who arrived in the House at age 36 to replace her husband Sonny Bono after he died in a skiing accident, said it seemed like the lawmaker didn’t know how to talk to a woman as an equal. “Instead of being ‘how’s the weather, how’s your career, how’s your bill,’ it was ‘I thought about you while I was in the shower.’ So it was a matter of saying to him ‘That’s not cool, that’s just not cool.’"


Bono declined to identify the lawmaker, saying the behavior stopped after she finally challenged him. He still serves in Congress, she said.


“It is a man’s world, it’s still a man’s world,” Bono said. “Not being a flirt and not being a bitch. That was my rule, to try to walk that fine line."

Another lawmaker, Rep. . Jackie Speier (also of California), said she was sexually assaulted by a male of chief of staff when she was an inexperienced staffer on the Hill.

Rep. Jackie Speier of California has recently gone public with an account of being sexually assaulted by a male chief of staff while she was a congressional staffer. She has criticized the vague rules in place on the issue and is preparing legislation to mandate sexual harassment training for congressional offices, among other changes. In a video posted to Twitter last week, she called Congress “a breeding ground for a hostile work environment” and encouraged others to come forward.


Yet when it comes to lawmakers themselves, Speier said: “I think the women in Congress are big girls. The equalizer that exists in Congress that doesn’t exist in other settings is that we all get paid the same amount and we all have a vote, the same vote. So if you have members that are demeaning you it’s because you’re letting them."

To be sure, lawmakers have certain advantages that the women say should limit the possible repercussions of taking a stand against harassment.

Yet when it comes to lawmakers themselves, Speier said: “I think the women in Congress are big girls. The equalizer that exists in Congress that doesn’t exist in other settings is that we all get paid the same amount and we all have a vote, the same vote. So if you have members that are demeaning you it’s because you’re letting them."

One former representative went even further, saying there is no harassment in Congress because female and male lawmakers have equal power. Though academics strenuously pushed back against this notion.

Former Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California flatly argued that harassment can’t take place between members of Congress. “Female members and male members are equals, they don’t sexually harass each other,” Tauscher said.


In fact, the law specifies that harassment can occur between equals, said Jennifer Drobac, a professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, who teaches a course in sexual harassment law.


“Formally, two members of Congress may have the same status. That doesn’t change the fact that sexual harassment can occur between peers,” Drobac said, noting that numerous other factors can come into play, including the difference in age and length of service between the members, and the mere fact that men have more power in society than women.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, accusations of sexual harassment by male lawmakers have exploded into a full-blown crisis involving dozens of MPs, something that's become a major problem for Theresa May's government as it struggles to reach an agreement on the terms of the UK's exit from the European Union.

Considering the political fallout in the UK, we imagine many male lawmakers on Capitol Hill are nervously tugging at their collars this morning as they worry that more lawmakers and staffers might come forward and start naming names. With Republicans' tax-reform push looking more tenuous by the day, another scandal is the last thing the White House and its partners in Congress need right now.