Sexism in the Senate? Do Tell…

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, once famously called “the Senate’s hottest member” by Democrat and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has a book coming out this month entitled “Off the Sidelines.”  In it, she shares that she has had to put up with sexual harassment and “fat shaming” from other male Senate colleagues and Congressmen.

The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus shares a few of the gory details:


At one point, Gillibrand writes of being in the House gym, “where an older, male colleague told her, ‘Good thing you’re working out, because you wouldn’t want to get porky!’”

Another time, after she lost 50 pounds, People’s Tara Fowler and Sandra Sobieraj Westfall recount, “one of her fellow Senate members approached her, squeezed her stomach, and said, ‘Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby.’”

And this delectably sexist morsel from a Southern congressman “who said, as he held my arm, walking me down the center aisle of the House chamber, ‘You know Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat.’”

Yeah, what these men said is disgusting and presumes that women exist to be eye candy for men; that men are the arbiters of what is attractive and that women should care what they think.

Surprisingly, Ms. Marcus’ attitude is sort of ‘boys will be boys keep your mouth shut, ladies, or the guys will make trouble for you.  How will you get a bill passed if you “out” the guilty parties?’

The other solution Marcus proposes is to just wait until they die off.  She writes that the new crop of guys will be better because they grew up around working women and don’t have a patronizing attitude toward them.  Many of them will be better, but some will not – and without a firm message that both men and women today reject this behavior, how do the culprits feel any consequences for such actions, especially if their authority or notoriety function as a shield.

Pro Football Player Ray Rice beat his girlfriend unconscious and dragged her out of an elevator.  Is he not of the younger generation?  Judging by number of young women across the country demanding that colleges do better at handling reports of sexual assault and harassment, clearly some young guys are not getting the boundary thing.  While these are more severe examples, this is still part and parcel of the same thinking – that women are objects and not equals.

The messages we get from mainstream media push hyper-sexualization and don’t necessarily foster awareness, so who is to say this behavior will stop when the “old farts” die off?

Howard Kurtz of FOX News demands that Senator Gillibrand name her attackers.  He says she is acting “a little bit pregnant” – using these incidents to sell books.

Kurtz also points out there have been other notorious cases, clearly far worse, like Oregon Senator Bob Packwood, who grabbed, groped, followed and forcefully kissed women, yet the information was buried; the story suppressed. This led to more women being harassed, and embarrassed not only the Senate body but the newspaper publishers that held back the information.

Below the Salt News Editor Linda Anselmi brought up a valid point:

“Gillibrand has been a fierce advocate for stopping sexual assault in the military – how can she ask victims to come forward on something so horrid as sexual assault if she is not willing to risk backlash by telling her truth about harassment – and who is guilty of it?”

Women are still outnumbered in the Senate four to one.  Most of these guys are the ones passing or nixing legislation – a fair bit of it having to do with issues that affect women in the workplace, child care, equal pay and an end to violence against women.  If they don’t “get it” on something as simple as harassment, or worse, if they think they can get away with this behavior, what does that say about our level of progress?  How do we know that their thinking as regards legislation pertaining to women reflects a serious attitude?

It is not a woman’s job to put up with idiotic, or rude behavior because “boys will be boys.”  Senator Gillibrand shows up to work every day and behaves professionally, not making inappropriate comments about a man’s physique, sexuality or weight.  No innuendo accompanies her verbiage.  Why does she not have the right to the same respect?  How long is a woman just supposed to “let it go?” or “lighten up?”

Perhaps Gillibrand thinks just saying it publicly, but not specifically, will be enough to put these guys on notice to stop.  Yet if someone is that clueless, how can we assume he’s even clued in enough to know she is talking about him?

I suspect Senator Gillibrand is thinking “but I still have to work with these guys” in choosing to stay silent and I get her conundrum.  As Dana Bash and other woman journalists and politicians have pointed out, they have long fended for themselves.  Is this not just perpetuating the behavior?

Perhaps rather than “naming names,” Gillibrand is taking a page from the tongue in cheek post by Charlotte Alter in TIME Magazine:

“Exposure could cause some political turmoil for her colleagues, but … it’s more likely to blow over without costing anyone their seat. The more powerful choice is to describe the harassment without naming names, generate public outrage about the treatment of women in government and then use it to persuade the guilty parties to vote the way she wants them to.”

Blackmail.  Hmmm.  Got it.

I guess that’s more consistent with the way Washington operates but I don’t know how useful a message that is to the rest of us.

Originally published at Anita Finlay’s blog.  Reposted, in full, with permission of the author.



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