It's about way more than power, too.
Left photo by Mark Wilson via Getty Images. Right photo via Getty Images
Paige Wagers was nervous. After all, it wasn't typical for the mail clerk working on Capitol Hill to be summoned directly into a United States senator's office. But that's what happened one day in 1975, when her intercom buzzed, and Bob Packwood was on other line. The moment the 21-year-old went to see what the veteran Ohio lawmaker wanted, her trepidation turned to terror. According to testimony later provided to the Senate's Select Committee on Ethics, Packwood closed the door of his office, shoved her up against a wall, and forcibly kissed her with tongue. She returned to her desk shaking and crying.
"I lost all confidence in myself," she said. "I was afraid to be around men. Emotionally, financially, and intellectually, I remained frozen in time."
In September 1995, the committee submitted what amounted to an indictment concluding she—along with more than a dozen other women who came forward about Packwood—was telling the truth. According to their testimony, the Oregon Republican kissed supporters, former staffers, National Abortion Rights Action League workers, hotel desk clerks, elevator operators, and women applying to be his speech writer; he also chased another staffer around a desk, grabbed a dining-room hostess by the crotch, and touched the leg of another senator's staffer who had offered to babysit his kids. In 1981, when Wagers was working for the Department of Labor, Packwood forcibly kissed her again, she said. Ultimately, the Senate found he had acted inappropriately with at least 17 women and unanimously recommended Packwood's expulsion. Instead of being forced out, he resigned in disgrace.
This kind of behavior—and the astonishingly long gap between the misconduct and anything resembling accountability—is a now-familiar narrative to anyone who's been following the news in America lately. But despite the proximity of literally hundreds of people responsible for crafting the country's laws, matters haven't improved much for women working on the Hill since Packwood's behavior led to the passage of the unfortunately named Congressional Accountability Act in 1995. In fact, as a recent BuzzFeed exposé on Democratic representative John Conyers's repeated sexual advances toward staff members showed, accusers often get funneled through a byzantine process that ultimately leads to private settlements reminiscent of the ones that kept Harvey Weinstein's victims in the dark for decades. That system, coupled with the fact that elected officials in DC are often sleeping on cots away from their families, interacting with much younger staffers, and working in an environment that lacks a true Human Resources department and revolves around cocktail hours, together make for a perfect storm of enablement for would-be predators.
DC might sound like the worst summer camp ever, but it's actually not that different from industries like the media, which has its own gender imbalances and alcohol-fueled culture. The key difference seems to be that, as America just saw with the ouster of NBC's erstwhile star Matt Lauer, bad male journalists don't tend to last very long once they're publicly outed as predators. Al Franken, on the other hand, still has his job almost two weeks after the first of several women came forward to accuse him of groping and other sexual misconduct. Other media stars like Garrison Keillor and Charlie Rose were also quickly fired after their behavior came under public scrutiny.
"The structure is different," Marianne Cooper, a Stanford sociologist who was the lead researcher for Lean In, told me of the difference between the media world and the one in Washington. "The CEO of a company can decide to terminate someone in a top-talent role. There's no one like that in Congress."
"[The Hill] is also weird because it's essentially a large entity that functions like a bunch of small businesses," added Emily Martin, the vice president for workplace justice at the National Women's Law Center. "You get the worst side of a close, informal office where there's no one whose job it is to help you negotiate something like sexual harassment."
Melanie Sloan made her name as an ethics watchdog in DC, but more recently she's emerged as another prominent critic of the HR disaster that is the United States Congress—with her own experience to boot. When she got a job on the Hill working for Congressman John Conyers in 1995, she'd heard there was a lot of sexual harassment taking place there, she recalled. Still, given that she was a respected lawyer at the time—and joining his staff as a minority counsel to the House Judiciary Committee—she thought it would be fine.
She was wrong. Although Sloan does not think she was sexually harassed, she said her three years at that job were characterized by verbal abuse and punctuated with bizarre incidents, like one in which she walked into her boss's office and found him in his underwear. Without an HR department, she struggled to figure out what she was supposed to do.
"I did everything I could," she told me. "I talked to my supervisor. I talked to [then] Minority Leader [Richard] Gephardt. Externally, I talked to a women's group and a reporter. I told the reporter what happened, and he called a woman colleague of mine to check my story. She told him I was mentally unstable, and even though I'd worked with this reporter before, he told me, 'Well, maybe you are mentally unstable.'"
Reporters' attitudes are obviously changing; on November 22, Sloan was the first person to go on the record with the Washington Post about Conyers's alleged misconduct toward staffers, which she said included verbal abuse in her case but appears to have centered on unwanted touching and requests for sexual acts in others. So are societal attitudes: Sloan said she recently heard from friends of her's from the 90s—one who worked on the Hill and another in a big DC law firm—who shared stories of harassment for the first time. But it might take members of Congress longer to get it together than the average person who watches the Today show. The average age of congresspeople is 57; in the Senate specifically, it is 61.
"I think that when you've been serving in a bubble with no accountability for 20 to 30 years, you're out of step not just with the times but with reality," said Morra Aarons-Mele, a podcaster and activist for women in politics. "I think that's why the system is set up to protect harassers—these people have been at the highest level of power for so long. They don't even drive."
Take Nancy Pelosi, who is now in favor of Conyers's resignation, but initially made a cringe-worthy appearance on Meet the Press in which she defended the congressman as a civil rights icon. There's also James Clyburn, the legendary House Democrat who bizarrely suggested the standards of behavior for elected officials were more lenient than for other people—and that Conyers's accusers were racist, before finally getting it right by joining Pelosi in calling for his resignation Thursday.
On the other hand, two Democrats, Representative Jackie Speier of California and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, introduced legislation earlier this month intended to reform how sexual harassment complaints are filed and dealt with for Capitol Hill employees. The ME TOO Congress Act, which was in the works before the BuzzFeed story about Conyers even came out, would eliminate waiting periods for accusers who want to file complaints and provide legal resources to victims, as well as make defendants pay their legal fees out of pocket (instead of taxpayers, as is the case now, somehow). Perhaps most crucially, it would let the public know when settlements had been paid out. That bill still has to make it through the legislative process, but a good sign came when the both houses passed a resolution requiring all members and their staffs to go through sexual harassment training.
Aarons-Mele doesn't think the resolution will do enough, however, and will remain skeptical until a law forcing transparency is actually in effect. She mentioned Today co-host Matt Lauer's rapid-fire termination as an example of how, when high-profile men are finally publicly held accountable, the culture is forced into motion. And although changing attitudes can take a generation, the infrastructure needed to provide transparency about sexual misconduct in Congress can be assembled pretty quickly.
"If training was gonna solve anything, we would have 75 percent less sexual harassment in the workplace than we do," she told me. "I think sunlight is the best disinfectant. As long as Congress remains a closed system, where there's no incentive for change, there will be none."
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