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Former Congresswomen Share Stories of Harassment

Former Rep. Mary Bono said rumors of an affair with former Speaker Newt Gingrich ended up in the National Enquirer

Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., says sexual harassment on Capitol Hill is at a “watershed moment.” (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., says sexual harassment on Capitol Hill is at a “watershed moment.” (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call)

Former congresswoman Mary Bono knows sexual harassment is rampant on Capitol Hill because she experienced it firsthand.

“My first year, first or second year in the Congress, I was accused of having an affair with Newt Gingrich. It was on the front page of the National Enquirer,” she recalled.

She said she “had this little awakening that it existed,” but she said women back then never thought she could change the culture of sexual harassment on the Hill.  

[What Former Congresswomen Learned From Running]

“I don’t even think we realized how much we had just accepted it as a culture,” she said.

But now as a backlash against harassment washes over the Hill — and the rest of America — some women who served in Congress over the last four decades spoke to Roll Call about that culture as they knew it.

Watch: Former Congresswomen Reflect on Sexual Harassment Issues

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Bono came to Congress in 1998 to replace her husband, then-California Rep. Sonny Bono, who was killed in a skiing accident. The Republican was a 37-year-old mother of two young children.

With women who worked on Capitol Hill stepping forward to share their stories of sexual harassment, Bono said it’s a watershed moment.

Her advice to women considering running for Congress: Make sure you have thick skin.

[Getting Into the Boys Club]

“However thick it is, it’s still not going to be thick enough, because they are going to get under your skin and they are going to try to get you spinning and get you off your game and hurt you and get people talking,” Bono said. “It’s hard to explain to people what that feels like and what it’s like to endure that.”

She said that because of the culture back then, where women often got picked on, no one took the Gingrich rumor particularly seriously.

“Again, that’s that thick skin thing: Where did that come from and how could it be on the front page of the National Enquirer. Luckily, back then, people didn’t take [the tabloid] seriously, but in this environment, would they?”

Bono said there were “tons” of other incidents.

“My favorite one was somebody wrote a letter to a female colleague of mine and they forged my signature and wrote the letter as if it were from me to her, and in the letter it said that I was in love with her,” she said. “And, so this colleague grabbed me and she said, ‘Mary, did you send me a letter?’ And I’m thinking, ‘What did my staff do?’ I had no idea.”

So she took me to her office, she showed me this letter and I look at it and I start laughing. I’m going, ‘You can’t be serious.’ She goes, ‘Mary, I didn’t know if it was a cry for help.’”

She turned the letter over to Capitol Police, but she never found out who wrote it.

“I actually think in hindsight it’s funny, but you have to warn people again that these are the kinds of things that you would never in a million years think you would have to endure, but people can be that clever to be so devious,” she said.

As members and former members started to come forward with stories of harassment over the last couple months, Bono shared her story of a former member who she wouldn’t identify telling her he tought of her in the shower.

“As a member of Congress, [I] occasionally would have a colleague say something inappropriate to me and I had to call them to the mat for it, say ‘Knock it off,’” she said.

Sexual harassment on Capitol Hill was no secret back then, she said. 

“Anybody who says they weren’t aware this was going on is either in denial or they’re lying,” Bono said.

Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., recalls a celebrity flirting with her staffer. (Thomas McKinless/ CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md., recalls a celebrity flirting with her staffer. (Thomas McKinless/ CQ Roll Call)

Republican Connie Morella of Maryland, who served from 1987 to 2003, didn’t have any personal experience with harassment, but said staffers were usually the most aware of what went on.

“It probably was rampant and it was probably was that I really didn’t know about it. I think a lot of the information could have come from staff who are open about saying something. Because, you know, you have a staff camaraderie, too, and sometimes they try to protect each other and they know what’s happening in other offices — it’s just amazing,” she said. “I have a feeling that the staff were more cognizant than the members.”

Morella, 86, did have a celebrity one time act flirtatious with one of her staffers.

“I do remember having a star who was testifying on one of my domestic violence issues who wanted to make out with one of my staffers, and that I knew about,” she said.

(Thomas McKinless/ CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Barbara Kennelly, D-Conn., said definite rules need to be put in place. (Thomas McKinless/ CQ Roll Call)

Morella is still active with politics. She was president of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress from 2012 to 2014, before Democrat Barbara Kennelly of Connecticut, who served as president from 2014 to 2016.

Kennelly, who served from 1982 to 1991, said back in her day, staffers and members thought their only choices were “You have to put up with it or they quit.”

(Thomas McKinless/ CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., said reporting sexual harassment depends on the situation. (Thomas McKinless/ CQ Roll Call)

Former Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, who was in Congress from 2008 to 2017, said it should be easier for women to report cases of harassment.

“Especially if it’s a staff person, I would actually encourage the person to go directly to the member. But I do think Congress could actually set up an avenue for that,” she said.

Edwards believes in deferring to the victim and his or her decision of whether to address harassment.

“I think it would just depend on the circumstance. It would also depend on what the allegations are and for that person, whether coming forward would actually induce others to come forward,” she said. “I don’t think that you can make a hard and fast rule under the current operating environment for a particular person. I think it really depends on what their experience is and what [the victim] wants.”

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