Female lawmakers allege harassment by colleagues in House

2017-11-03 20:19


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Wasington — For GOP Rep. Mary Bono, the suggestive comments wouldn't stop from one male colleague. He even approached her on the House floor to tell her he'd been thinking about her in the shower, she says.

Bono, who served 15 years before being defeated in 2012, is not alone.

As reports flow out almost daily of harassment or worse by men in entertainment, business and the media, one current and three former female lawmakers tell The Associated Press they, too, have been harassed or subjected to hostile sexual comments — by fellow members of Congress.

The incidents occurred years or even decades ago, usually when the women were young newcomers to Congress. They range from isolated comments at one hearing, to repeated unwanted come-ons, to lewd remarks and even groping on the House floor.

Coming amid an intensifying national focus on sexual harassment and gender hostility in the workplace, the revelations underscore that no woman is immune, even at the highest reaches of government.

"This is about power," said former California Sen. Barbara Boxer, after describing an incident at a hearing in the 1980s where a male colleague made a sexually suggestive comment about her from the dais, which was met with general laughter and an approving second from the committee chairperson.

"It's hostile and embarrasses, and therefore could take away a person's power."

Boxer and the other female lawmakers spoke on the record to tell their stories in the wake of revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein's serial attacks on women, as well as disclosures from current and former Capitol Hill staffers about harassment by lawmakers and aides.

Those accounts, published in The Washington Post and elsewhere, noted that Congress has few training or reporting requirements in place to deal with sexual harassment.

Perpetrators remain unidentified

Largely untold before now is that some female lawmakers themselves say they have been harassed by male colleagues.

While rare, the accounts raise troubling questions about the boys' club environment on Capitol Hill where male lawmakers can feel empowered to target not only staffers but even their own peers.

The lawmakers declined to identify the perpetrators by name, but at least two of the men continue to serve in the House.

None of the female lawmakers interviewed reported the incidents — some noted it was not clear where to lodge such a complaint.

"When I was a very new member of Congress in my early 30s, there was a more senior member who outright propositioned me, who was married, and despite trying to laugh it off and brush it aside, it would repeat. And I would avoid that member," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.

She added that she would warn other new female members about the lawmaker in question, but she declined to identify him, while saying he remains in Congress.

Sanchez also said that a different male colleague repeatedly ogled her, and at one point touched her inappropriately on the House floor, while trying to make it appear accidental. She declined to identify the lawmaker but said he was no longer in Congress.

Bono said she ultimately confronted her colleague on the House floor after he'd made repeated harassing comments.

"Instead of being 'how's the weather, how's your career, how's your bill', it was 'I thought about you while I was in the shower'," Bono said. "So it was a matter of saying to him 'That's not cool, that's just not cool.'"

Bono declined to identify the lawmaker, saying the behaviour stopped after she confronted him. He still serves in Congress, she said.

'Are you supposed to be flattered?'

Former Rep. Hilda Solis, now a Los Angeles County supervisor, recalls repeated unwanted harassing overtures from one lawmaker, though she declined to name him or go into detail.

"I don't think I'm the only one. What I tried to do was ignore it, turn away, walk away. Obviously it's offensive. Are you supposed to be flattered? No, we're adults," said Solis, who left Congress in 2009 to join the Obama administration as labour secretary.

The experiences occurred against the backdrop of broader gender inequities in Congress, where women remain a distinct minority, making up only about 20% of members in the House and Senate. That's up from fewer than 10% in the quarter-century since politics' Year of the Woman in 1992.

Nonetheless, a few former female lawmakers contacted by AP expressed surprise and even disbelief at the notion that lawmakers themselves could be victims of harassment.

"Female members and male members are equals, they don't sexually harass each other," said former Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher.

But the law specifies that harassment can occur between equals, said Jennifer Drobac, a professor at the Indiana University law school, noting that factors like age, gender and ethnicity can create an imbalanced power dynamic.

Bono disputed any suggestion that she or any other female lawmaker could not be harassed by their peers.

"My career didn't suffer, I didn't suffer," Bono said. "But it did happen."

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