I saw or heard about sexual harassment daily when I worked on Capitol Hill. I also experienced it more than I care to remember.
My first job in Washington was running elevators in the Capitol. It is the kind of job they give to students working their way through school. I worked there – and in the elevators in the Senate Office Buildings – for more than five years.
An elevator is a tight, confined, and often crowded space. I saw women manhandled there on a regular basis. The women were almost always young. Their harassers were almost always older, Members of Congress or men on their senior staff. It was common knowledge Senator Strom Thurmond excelled at this practice – so much so that many women chose to avoid the elevator or wait for the next car when they saw him.
Women were not the only victims. My bottom was pinched enough that I learned to operate the elevators with my back to wall. The Legislative Counsel for the Senate was particularly persistent. I couldn’t refuse him service but it got to the point where I wanted to deck him every time I saw him.
My sophomore year in college, I got a job as an auditor working with the Bureau of Budget and Finance. The office was a typical Washington bullpen. Auditors worked side by side with desks facing the wall. The supervisors sat behind us so they could watch us work.
After I had been there about six months, I became aware of a commotion behind me. I turned around and saw our supervisor giving a tour to a woman from the senior staff. I thought nothing of it until the following week when I found myself reassigned to her office. I was given a desk four feet in front of hers. I was told to greet people who came to see her and answer her phone, but it soon became clear that wasn’t why I was there.
Though there were no overt actions, there were enough invitations to dinners and shows and personal questions to make me uncomfortable. I dreaded coming to work, but I needed the money. Finally, I decided I had enough and quit. I got a job as a janitor in an office building near DuPont Circle and filled in when they were shorthanded at the Senate.
Because I was there so long and people knew me, my elevator became a safe space for women looking to get away from the office. They would ride and talk until they felt they had to go back to work. Senator Steven Young of Ohio was the subject of frequent complaint and conversation. He was so offensive and so frequently offensive that he couldn’t keep a full staff.
When girls looking for work came through and asked if I knew anyone that might be hiring, I often told them there was certain to be a vacancy in Young’s office but always warned them that them the job came with a price. Some felt they could handle it. Others did not.
I remember one girl in particular. She was about nineteen and desperate for a job so I sent her to Young’s office. She came back in tears. After being interviewed by the office manager, she was introduced to the Senator. She said as soon as the office manager left the room, he came around the desk and grabbed her breasts.
A couple of friends who transitioned to the Supreme Court had similar experiences there. One of them said she stopped wearing heels to work because the Justice she worked work for – a senior member of the Court – habitually chased her around the desk.
So when I consider the moment, I find myself wondering what’s new? Is it all political, the context of our times, or have we reached a tipping point?
The closest thing to it in my experience is the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s. It reached critical mass at Selma on “Bloody Sunday.” Everyone of age will remember that day – the sight of Alabama state troopers meeting 600 peaceful demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, wading into them with Billy Clubs and tear gas, leaving Amelia Boynton, the leader of the demonstration bloody and unconscious at their feet. Our collective consciousness was touched and the world changed.
It feels like the Harvey Weinstein case has created such a moment. The dam has burst. Each woman who steps forward inspires another and they leapfrog like a forest fire, spreading from media to politics, business to business. Finally, we are beginning to focus on how broad and systemic this problem is.
In October of 1991, I had dinner with Teresa Heinz. It was a few months after her husband and my former boss, Senator John Heinz, had passed away leaving her with the burden of a company and foundation to run and three young children.
At one point, our conversation turned to the confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas and the testimony of Anita Hill, a Yale Law School graduate who had been Thomas’ assistant until he was nominated for the Supreme Court.
Hill’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary was shocking and surreal. She testified Thomas had made persistent advances, boasted of his sexual prowess, and talked with her about sex with animals, breast sizes, and someone named Long Dong Silver.
The Judiciary Committee didn’t know what to do with it, but the one thing they didn’t do was take it seriously. Hill passed a lie detector test, but it didn’t matter. They didn’t believe her, didn’t want to believe her, and just plain didn’t care.
A member of the Committee, Senator Arlen Specter, reflected the mood of the majority when he suggested that talk of breasts at work was, “you know, no big deal.”
Mrs. Heinz’ reaction to all this took me by surprise. “You Americans are so foolish about these things,” she said. “A European woman would have slapped him silly and that would have been the end of it.”
Maybe that is true in Portugal where she grew up or even here when there is a level playing field. But what it misses is the common denominator of all these activities – Sexual harassment is more about power than sex.
Maybe sexual harassment wasn’t considered a big deal two decades ago. Now it is. Now it seems we are more disposed to believe women than not. Now it seems we are more prepared to do something about it than not. The speed with which so many powerful people have fallen from grace speaks to this fact.
It seems clear society will no longer tolerate this kind of conduct. Pure and simple: It’s wrong. It’s wrong in Hollywood or Washington. It’s wrong in business or politics. It’s wrong in the Senate, the House, or the White House. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about the Democrats or Republicans, Clinton or Trump. It’s wrong.
But toppling a few predators from power will not solve this problem. Like most systemic problems, the answer has to come from the bottom up. In other words, it’s not about what they do. The question is – What will we do? How will we respond? How will we address the parts of this iceberg that are beneath the surface, less visible, but nearer to our lives.
In the words of the great philosopher, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” We are all responsible. We all can do something. We all can say something. We all can stop ignoring it and looking away.