Sex Harassment Can Happen Anywhere, Even In Gov't

by Hilary Weaver

In her upcoming memoir Plenty Ladylike, Missouri state Sen. Claire McCaskill blasted sexual harassment by highlighting intern culture, which can be a problem in all workplaces, even in government. McCaskill has become one of the biggest voices on Capitol Hill calling for an end to sexual harassment, and her book echoes that drive. McCaskill writes about her own difficult experiences as a woman working in politics in 1974, when she interned for former Democratic Rep. Sue Shear.

It was the first time I experienced moments of being very uncomfortable as a young woman surrounded by lots of men. There were inappropriate things said to me and inappropriate behaviors that made me very uneasy.

McCaskill's experience, which was more than 40 years ago, doesn't sound too far off from what still often happens in politics today. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, women make up just 24.1 percent of state legislatures nationwide. Legislative environments are still a "boys club," as Paul notes in his book review, with women very much in the minority. McCaskill goes into further detail about these moments of uneasiness.

One day I ended up in the elevator with two older male legislators and one of their assistants. They began asking if I liked "to party" and then tried to get me to come to one of their offices for some drinks. I felt trapped. For the rest of the internship, I took the stairs.

The Kansas City Star's Steve Paul noted McCaskill's reflections has especially resonated after Missouri House Speaker John Diehl was caught exchanging sexually suggestive texts with a 19-year-old intern. The texts, published by Salon, included sexually charged message such as, "God I want you right now," and, in response to a reported bikini photo, "Laying in bed looking at your pic." Diehl's office reportedly obtained the texts after becoming aware of them. Diehl has since resigned from his position.

Regardless of whether Diehl and the intern's relationship was consensual, the incident, coupled with McCaskill's memoir, offers larger comment on what it means to be a woman working in high-pressure offices. In the same week Diehl's reported philandering surfaced, South Carolina Rep. Nelson Hardwick resigned after a female coworker claimed she was sexually harassed. Last September, a former intern at Swiss bank UBS sued over alleged sexual harassment, claiming she was offered free designer shoes and bags in return for sexual favors. Whether in a fashion office or the halls of a state legislature, sexual harassment happens all too often and has long been underreported.

Sexual harassment can even happen in the very buildings where legislation is proposed. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has talked about her own run-ins with coworkers a.k.a. lawmakers. "Good thing you're working out because you wouldn't want to get porky," another senator reportedly told Gillibrand, according to Time magazine.

Good news is the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace has made some gains. In New York, unpaid interns can now sue employers for sexual harassment and abuse. McCaskill and Gillibrand have also teamed up to push a bill that would procure federal funding for sexual assault investigations on college campuses. McCaskill even offers "Claire on Campus" tours to talk with students about how to end the recent firestorm of sexual assaults at universities.

There is still a lot of work that needs to happen to completely eliminate sexual harassment and abuse. But the more McCaskill, Gillibrand, and other women talk and get enraged about the problem, the more people might listen. And that could make sexism and harassment really end.