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Opinion: The Real Year of the Woman

Female lawmakers are playing outsize role in sexual harassment debate

Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., resigned after he reportedly suggested that a female staffer carry his child for $5 million and then retaliated against her when she balked. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., resigned after he reportedly suggested that a female staffer carry his child for $5 million and then retaliated against her when she balked. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

It takes a special kind of depravity for a congressman to suggest to a female staffer that she carry his child for $5 million and then retaliate against her when she declines the offer, as former Rep. Trent Franks reportedly did last year.

Nobody is winning a profile in courage award for asking female staff members to cuddle with him in his apartment and then firing them after they refuse, as former Rep. John Conyers Jr. was accused of doing before he resigned in disgrace. And you’d think that voters would somehow weed out a senator who apparently had a groping habit before he was ever in politics, but former Sen. Al Franken proved that conventional wisdom wrong.

Those were the first three members to resign last week, and they won’t be the last, as an avalanche of disclosures about Capitol Hill’s culture of sexual harassment has shocked the country. Bad behavior by men has existed in the House and Senate for as long as women have been there doing their jobs. But only now is the reality coming to light because of the increasing power of women in the Capitol.

No longer just the secretaries taking dictation as they did for so long, women in Washington are sharing and reporting stories of harassment. Even as they remain a minority of members, women are the ones acting on those reports and demanding accountability.

Watch: Roll Call Reporters Discuss Covering Sexual Harassment on the Hill in the #MeToo Era

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One of those women is Andrea Lafferty, the executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, who went directly to Speaker Paul Ryan’s office when a former Franks staffer confided in her what the congressman had done to her and others. Lafferty went even further, speaking on the record with The New York Times when Franks set a distant retirement date and explained he had simply discussed surrogacy in a way that might have been insensitive.

“This was not a policy discussion,” Lafferty told the Times. “This was a request with a $5 million payout.” As a conservative activist, Lafferty would have no motive to bring Franks down, other than to protect current and future staffers from facing a similar horror.

No coincidence

Another of the women speaking up was Rep. Kathleen Rice,  the first Democrat to call on Conyers to resign once the long-buried allegations against him were made public, even as other Democratic leaders, including Leader Nancy Pelosi, defended Conyers publicly.

“I’ve reviewed the allegations against him, and they’re as credible as they are repulsive,” Rice said in a statement about Conyers. 

It’s no coincidence that the first Republican to call on Rep. Blake Farenthold to resign for settling harassment allegations against him with taxpayer money was also a woman, Rep. Mia Love. “I don’t think he thinks he’s done anything wrong, but the fact is, someone was paid off,” the Utah Republican said on CNN. 

And it was a group of 11 female senators calling for Franken’s resignation over the course of 90 minutes last Thursday that pressured him beyond what he could withstand. Would Franken have resigned without the women in his own party pushing him out? He hadn’t done it before they came forward and literally said in a news conference, “Enough is enough.”

The first Democratic senator to call on Franken to resign was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who was visibly shaking with rage at a Politico “Women Rule” forum when she discussed his behavior. “It’s wrong and I just don’t think it can be tolerated,” she said.

Gillibrand also talked at the forum about the current system for staffers to report harassment, which is, as she said, “entirely written to protect the accused.” Gillibrand and Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, a lawyer and former staffer herself, are now pushing legislation to overhaul the entire reporting and discipline process to make it transparent and accountable. The goal, finally, is to have a mechanism that will act as a tool to identify and end harassment for the victims, instead of acting as a shield to avoid publicity and punishment for the accused.

At at a House Administration hearing last week, Speier took her own colleagues to task for letting the process exist as long as it has. “Shame on us for not having addressed this sooner,” she said.

Pushing boundaries

The women on Capitol Hill will push this issue further than it ever could have gotten without them. Rep. Susan W. Brooks is the Republican chair of the House Ethics Committee that moved last week to open investigative subcommittees into Franks and Farenthold for their behavior.

Susan Tsui Grundmann leads the Office of Compliance, which she defended last week as acting only through the laws that Congress writes itself. Last week, she practically begged members to let her office do more with less opacity. She called the reforms that have been enacted so far “the floor, not the ceiling.”

Not unlike the Congressional pages, whose program was eliminated after an abuse scandal in 2006, many Congressional staffers are young, ambitious and working in an environment where they essentially have no power, while their bosses have nearly complete power. Almost the only mechanism protecting staffers today is the good conscience of the member they work for. That’s not enough.

The women on Capitol Hill are having an outsize role in this debate, and we’re lucky they are. Not only are many of them attorneys writing very careful legislation to codify a new system to stop harassment, they are also giving a crash course to Capitol Hill, and therefore the country, on what zero tolerance looks like. Is it touching someone’s waist, asking someone out, asking them to carry your baby?

The notoriously boundary-free zone of personal offices is about to get some boundaries. And for men who say they didn’t know better, they’ll know soon that none of it is okay. 

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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