This week, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman stepped down after four women came forward accusing him of violent assault, in a story published in The New Yorker. Schneiderman’s case is particularly appalling in light of his work supporting women’s rights over the past decade—he sued Harvey Weinstein earlier this year, and literally wrote the law establishing specific penalties for strangulation—but his circumstances are far from unique. When the #MeToo movement first went viral in October following the deluge of accusations against Weinstein, politicians and public servants were not immune from the fallout; since then, numerous politicians and government officials, across party lines, have resigned in the face of assault and harassment allegations against them.
According to Dr. Kelly Dittmar—an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP)—unequal power dynamics are responsible for the pervasiveness of sexual assault in politics, as in other fields. “All of this really comes down to power, and particularly imbalances of power, that have been established long ago and are perpetuated,” Dr. Dittmar says. ”Those in power use that power to protect themselves and to pressure those who don't have the same degree of power to not speak up.”
When we look at the statistics, it becomes very clear who “those in power” are: According to CAWP, men make up 80 percent of Congress.
Equal gender representation in public office won’t eradicate sexual assault in government, Dr. Dittmar argues, but the current disparity in gender representation is a large part of the problem. “Women are prone to unethical decisions and poor choices just as men are, but this type of exercise of power—the very sexual nature of this—is not something we see nearly to the same extent in women,” she says. “Having more women in power not only changes the dynamic because of how they exercise power, but also because women understand this type of abuse from a very different perspective.”
Since the launch of #MeToo, the issue of sexual harassment and assault in politics has finally entered the national conversation. The effects have been varied, from candidates establishing official platforms on sexual assault to powerful perpetrators being held accountable. Here’s a list of politicians who’ve resigned or decided not to seek re-election due to their despicable behavior towards women in the past few months.
Congressman Tim Murphy announced his resignation in October of 2017, after news broke that the conservative, anti-abortion politician had asked the woman with whom he cheated on his wife to get an abortion during an unfounded pregnancy scare. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, his mistress had sent him a text earlier that year that read, "You have zero issue posting your pro-life stance all over the place when you had no issue asking me to abort our unborn child just last week when we thought that was one of the options."
In December of last year, Representative John Conyers, the longest-serving Democrat in the House of Representatives, became the first lawmaker to resign amidst the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. After multiple former aides accused the congressman of sexual assault—and a $27,000 settlement that Conyers reached with one of his victims went public—Rep. Conyers resigned in a letter addressed to Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi, which made no mention of his alleged conduct whatsoever.
The entirety of the letter read, “I have made the decision to retire from my position as the Member of the United States House of Representatives from Michigan’s Thirteenth Congressional District effective today.” Conyers denied the allegations in statements made to media publications.
One day after the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation into allegations that Democratic Congressman Ruben Kihuen had grabbed a staffer’s thigh without consent and repeatedly propositioned her with unwanted dates and sex, Kihuen announced that he would not be seeking re-election in 2018. In a statement, he said, “I want to state clearly again that I deny the allegations in question… However, the allegations that have surfaced would be a distraction from a fair and thorough discussion of the issues in a reelection campaign.”
In one of the most bizarre scandals in modern politics, Representative Trent Franks of Arizona resigned in December after he admitted to asking two fellow colleagues if they would be surrogate mothers for his children in exchange for $5 million. While he initially announced that his resignation would take effect a month after the news broke, he made his resignation immediate after it became clear that Franks had not only asked his colleagues to be his surrogates, but also suggested that he impregnate them through intercourse. Franks was known as “one of the House’s most ardent social conservatives,” so it’s no surprise that he viewed his female colleagues as no more than incubators.
In January, then-Minnesota Senator Al Franken resigned in a defiant speech on the Senate floor, after being accused by eight women of unwanted kissing and/or groping. “I know in my heart that nothing I have done as a senator, nothing, has brought dishonor on this institution, and I am confident that the Ethics Committee would agree," he said. "Nevertheless, today I am announcing that in the coming weeks I will be resigning as a member of the United States Senate.”
Before resigning, Franken initially apologized to the women who accused him, without alluding to stepping down. However, after dozens of Democratic senators called on Franken to resign, he finally heeded their call.
Franken, like Schneiderman, had been respected as a champion of women before his allegations broke. Just a month before his own allegations surfaced, he said that the tendency by some to not believe women who come forward with sexual assault allegations was “disappointing.”
In February, Rob Porter—who served as Donald Trump’s staff secretary—resigned following abuse allegations from his two ex-wives. The allegations were first reported in the Daily Mail, where photos of Porter’s first ex-wife with a black eye and a 2010 protective order against Porter from his second wife were also made public.
In his resignation statement Porter denied the allegations. “These outrageous allegations are simply false,” he said. “I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign.” Days after Porter’s resignation, Trump came to his defense, tweeting,“Peoples [sic] lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation… There is no recovery for someone falsely accused - life and career are gone….” Contradictory to the White House’s narrative, FBI evidence shows that the White House was made aware of Porter’s alleged abusive history a full year before his resignation.
Both of Eric Schneiderman’s named accusers in The New Yorker piece told the publication that Porter’s resignation inspired them to come forward.
In December of 2017, Politico broke the news that Rep. Blake Farenthold, a Republican from Texas, had used $84,000 of taxpayer money to pay a private sexual assault and gender discrimination settlement to his former spokesperson, Lauren Greene. Shortly after, Farenthold promised to repay the government for the money he took from taxpayers; however, as of April 2018, he has yet to do so.
After news of his settlement broke, Farenthold initially announced that he would not be running for re-election, though he seemed committed to finishing his term. Four months later, however, he abruptly resigned. “While I planned on serving out the remainder of my term in Congress, I know in my heart it’s time for me to move along and look for new ways to serve,” he said in his statement.
Earlier this year, a sexual harassment case all-too-similar to that of Rep. Blake Farenthold’s surfaced, this time involving Congressman Patrick Meehan, a Republican from Pennsylvania. In January of 2018, news broke that Rep. Meehan had paid a former aide $39,000, using taxpayer money, to settle a sexual harassment claim. Meehan had allegedly expressed romantic feelings towards the aide, who was decades younger than him. Once Meehan found out that she was in a serious relationship with someone else, he allegedly became hostile, to the extent that the aide felt she had no choice but to leave the job.
In April of this year, Meehan finally resigned, in a letter that said, "I recognize that there are constituents who are disappointed in the manner in which I handled the situation that lead to my decision not to seek re-election and wish I had done better by them.” He also promised to pay back the $39,000.
Earlier this week, just hours after The New Yorker published a report in which four women accused New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of brutal physical assault, Schneiderman publicly announced his resignation, effective yesterday.
In his statement to The New Yorker, he alleged that the physical assault was consensual. “In the privacy of intimate relationships, I have engaged in role-playing and other consensual sexual activity,” he said. “I have not assaulted anyone. I have never engaged in nonconsensual sex, which is a line I would not cross.”
In the statement announcing his resignation, Schneiderman, who was a vocal proponent of the #MeToo movement, said that he “strongly contest[s]” the allegations against him, but is resigning because “they will effectively prevent [him] from leading the office’s work at this critical time.”