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If a Senator Can’t Report Sexual Harassment Without Backlash, Who Can?

Women, even those in power, have to walk a tricky tightrope of not wanting to seem too “sensitive” while at the same time standing up for themselves in the face of discrimination.

In her new book Off the Sidelines, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand highlights some of the sexist dealings she’s faced as a woman in politics. It is not surprising that the Senate, which had to build an extra women’s bathroom after a recent election because there were so many more women in the Senate (a whopping 20), would still have issues with appropriate boundaries for women. Senator Gillibrand spoke of how male colleagues discussed her attractiveness, or lack thereof, due to her post pregnancy weight gain.

Many of these instances involved physical contact, including one senator who squeezed her stomach to let her know he would be displeased if she lost any more weight because he likes his senators – excuse me, his “girls” — chubby. It wasn’t just fellow lawmakers, of course. One labor leader counseled her, “When I first met you in 2006 you were beautiful, a breath of fresh air. To win [the special], you need to be beautiful again.”

Because being beautiful has really helped Mitch McConnell in his political career.

Since women can’t be taken for their word, (mainly male) pundits have pushed the Senator to “prove it” and call out her “alleged” harassers, even calling her a liar. After all, they haven’t seen any harassment. As with everything in this polarized environment, one Republican operative posited that perhaps her reluctance to name names was because these colleagues were Democrats.

Obviously, women want to protect harassers that share their political views.

Sexual harassment in the workplace has been outlawed for more than 50 years. It’s considered a form of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. Women (and, yes, men) who feel they have a claim can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with enforcing many anti-discrimination laws. The EEOC works with employees to come to a resolution between them and their employer.

At least, this is how it works in theory.

The truth is that most women do not come forward. If they happen to make a complaint with their employer, they often face retaliation from the harasser or others in the workplace. Not to mention, the Supreme Court recently made it much, much harder to make both retaliation and sexual harassment claims, favoring the employer.

Women, even those in power, have to walk a tricky tightrope of not wanting to seem too “sensitive” while at the same time standing up for themselves in the face of discrimination. Senator Gillibrand’s experience, which isn’t unique, shows how difficult it can be for anyone to navigate the workplace without inviting further negative consequences. If this can happen to a United States Senator, what are the options for a woman working minimum wage in a job she’s desperate to keep?

The power dynamic for the majority of women in the workplace does not favor them when combating any type of workplace harassment. Like Senator Gillibrand, they are often not believed and are accused of having ulterior motives. The fear of losing their job, or being seen as unable to handle a job with a certain authority, causes many to ignore the harassment, often to their own detriment.

Other women involved in beltway politics have also mentioned the many inappropriate comments received from male senators. Journalist and MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell shared her own experiences with what she describes as the oldest white male club in the world. “We all had our stories of whom you’d not get in an elevator with and whom you’d protect your young female interns from,” she revealed when discussing Gillibrand’s revelations.

Senator Gillibrand brushed off the situations as a result of the world that these men come from. This attitude can be summed up by a tidbit in a 2005 book about late Senator Strom Thurmond. Sally Quinn is a Washington Post reporter and once was a major part of the Washington, D.C. scene. She is quoted in the Strom Thurmond book talking about a particular incident with the Senator at one such dinner party in the 1950s:

“My mother and I headed for the buffet table. As we were reaching for the shrimp, both of us jumped and let out a shriek. Senator Strom Thurmond, grinning from ear to ear, had one hand on my behind and the other on my mother’s. As I recall, we were both quite flattered, and thought it terribly funny and wicked of Ol’ Strom.”

While Senator Gillibrand did not find the comments flattering, she does not seem particularly put off by them. She even believes that in some cases the statements were well intentioned, even though they were idiotic. “It was all statements that were being made by men who were well into their 60s, 70s or 80s,” she says. “They had no clue that those are inappropriate things to say to a pregnant woman or a woman who just had a baby or to women in general.”

It seems we’re still living in a mad, Mad Men world.

The senator from New York has obviously not let these moments deter her and has continued to champion many issues, including those related to women. She is a supporter of the Paycheck Fairness Act, and has fought fiercely for her legislation, the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Act, which would have established a separate authority to investigate military sexual assaults had it been able to pass. While her vote has helped passed several pieces of legislation, several bills that would most help women have yet to make it out of not just the House, but also the Senate.

Perhaps the majority male Congress feels American women just aren’t pretty enough to get equal pay.

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