Sexist dinosaurs in Capitol Hill with Jurassic attitudes to women

Letter from America: senator’s claims of sexual harassment spark indignation

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: treatment of her in the halls of Capitol Hill shows even the highest offices in the land are not immune from sexual harassment that is common against women elsewhere in American society. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: treatment of her in the halls of Capitol Hill shows even the highest offices in the land are not immune from sexual harassment that is common against women elsewhere in American society. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

 

Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior Democratic senator from New York, sparked a flurry of watercooler chatter, talkshow outrage and online indignation in the United States this week with snippets from her new book, Off the Sidelines. In interviews publicising the book she revealed that she was the victim of sexual harassment at the hands (literally) of male colleagues in Congress.

Strangely, the backlash was not directed at the unnamed sexist members of Congress but at Gillibrand for not identifying them.

The 47-year-old politician who took over Hillary Clinton’s senate seat recalled that when her weight fluctuated following the birth of her two children, an older male senator whom she described as one of her favourites in the chamber came up behind her and squeezed her waist. “Don’t lose too much weight now,” he told her. “I like my girls chubby.”

On another occasion when she was working out in the House of Representatives gym, a male colleague told her: “Good thing you’re working out because you wouldn’t want to get porky.” (She replied: “Thanks, a**hole.”) In another incident, an “unidentified southern congressman” told her: “You know, Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat.”

‘You need to be beautiful again’

She also described a “labour leader” advising her: “When I first met you in 2006 you were beautiful, a breath of fresh air. To win [again] you need to be beautiful again.”

Gillibrand’s treatment in the hallowed halls of Capitol Hill shows that even the highest offices in the land are not immune from sexual harassment that is all too common against women elsewhere in American society. The reaction to the senator’s experiences has been startling not for the condemnation that would be expected to such behaviour from members of Congress who should know better but from those who said Gillibrand should go further.

A senior congressional reporter at US political news website Politico apologised for posting a message on the social media website Twitter saying he did not believe Gillibrand, while broadcasters criticised the senator for not naming and shaming those who had insulted her.

“No one is naming names and I think that’s actually, that’s weak. You know, if someone is squeezing your tummy and saying ‘I like my women chubby’, I want to know who that guy is running a state or a constituency in Congress,” said Mika Brzezinski, the female co-host of Morning Joe on television channel MSNBC.

Mark Leibovich, the Washington-based chief national correspondent for New York Times Magazine, sarcastically tweeted: “Maybe Gillibrand granted that senator anonymity so that he could insult her candidly.”

Formidable adversary

Gillibrand has made a name for herself as a formidable adversary on Capitol Hill pushing for reform of sexual assault policy on university campuses and in the military, so it would not be out of character for her to identify the culprits. She has willingly taken on fights in the past.

The Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, one of just 79 women out of 435 members in the lower chamber of Congress, described the remarks directed at Gillibrand as “abhorrent” and attributed the harassment to an age issue.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous – it’s disrespectful,” Pelosi said. “Some of it, I think, might – I don’t know who the people are who said the things they said – but let’s hope it is generational and will fade away.”

Congress has certainly greyed in line with the ageing US population.The average age of senators today is 62, compared with the mid-40s in the early 1800s, while the average age in the House of Representatives is 57, almost 15 years older than two centuries ago.

Waiting for old, sexist dinosaurs to shuffle off into retirement would not be as effective in rooting out sexism in US politics as nominating and electing more women, which would shift the gender balance in Congress on to a more equal footing.

There are just 20 women in the Senate while, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, women account for only 24.2 per cent of elected officials passing legislation at a state level.

Former president Jimmy Carter noted in his book A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power earlier this year how the female representation in US politics, at 18 per cent of member of Congress, lagged other countries such as Rwanda (64 per cent), Cuba (49 per cent), Scandinavian countries (average of 42 per cent) and in Europe (on average 23 per cent).

The US has some way to go to tip the scales of equality. Before then, others will likely suffer the harassment that Gillibrand has endured.