How does a reporter write about the history of sexual harassment in D.C. without mentioning Bill Clinton? The New York Times managed it, in a sharply partisan view of sexual harassment in Washington on Thursday by political reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “As Politics Meets Power, Harassment Flourishes.”
There was also nothing of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, or of more recent vintage, Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson’s domestic controversies. But conservative Justice Clarence Thomas was featured prominently, and two former Republican senators received unflattering mentions as well as well as Donald Trump, the real target of this pre-election story
Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, got her first tutorial about life as a woman in politics as a college intern at the statehouse in Jefferson City in 1974, when male lawmakers made lecherous remarks to her in the elevator; she took the stairs after that. When she became a state legislator in 1983, the lessons became more explicit when she asked the House speaker on the dais his advice for getting legislation passed.
“Claire,” she recalls his saying in a tone-deaf attempt at humor, “did you bring your kneepads?”
So “you can imagine how depressed I was,” the 63-year-old senator said the other day, recalling her reaction to news that a top Democrat in the Missouri General Assembly had sent explicit late-night texts to interns and that the Republican speaker of the Missouri House had exchanged “sexually charged texts” with a 19-year-old intern. Both men resigned last year.
It has been 25 years since Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas before an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, and propelled the term sexual harassment into the national spotlight. Once again, the nation is debating gender roles, amid a presidential campaign that features a woman, Hillary Clinton, who stands a chance of becoming America’s first female president, against a man, Donald J. Trump, who has been caught on a recording bragging about kissing and groping women whenever he wanted.
Across America, women are increasingly emboldened to discuss the harassment they experienced. Last week, an Alaska lawyer accused Justice Thomas of groping her at a dinner party in 1999; he has denied the claim as “preposterous,” as he did after the charges made in 1991 by Ms. Hill, who is now a Brandeis University professor. Since the release of the Trump recording, more than 10 women have accused the candidate of groping them -- accusations that he too has denied.
Here in Washington, Congress has set standards for itself that are different from -- and less stringent than -- those it established for federal agencies. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requires federal agencies to conduct training and post policies regarding workplace sexual harassment, the commission does not have jurisdiction over Capitol Hill.
Stolberg threw in a few alleged Democratic harassers, mostly on the state level, but seemed more interested in the scandals involving high-level Republicans while skipping President Bill Clinton’s sordid sexual past completely.
Instead, harassment complaints are handled by the little-known Office of Compliance. The office was created in 1995 after some high-profile cases -- including that of Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, a Republican who was accused of making unwanted advances toward women -- raised questions about why Congress was exempt.
Much, of course, has changed here and around the country since the days when Senator Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican who served until he was 100, was accused of trying to grope Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, in an elevator shortly after she took office in 1993.
Stolberg then quoted two Democratic representatives with stories of harassment on Capitol Hill, before forwarding the rather sexist suggestion that the fewer men in charge the better:
Many women in politics say the culture will not change until there are more women around -- and that is happening, albeit slowly. Today, women account for roughly 19 percent of Congress: There are 20 women in the Senate and 84 in the House. Ms. McCaskill’s chief of staff is a woman, as is her legislative director.
“I think that gives a signal to other young women,” she said. “It helps to have a woman in charge.”