Years before "Me Too" became a hashtag, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) made her name in Congress by combatting sexual misconduct within the military. Now, she's ready to lead that movement through the halls of Congress, and she's willing to hold people accountable, wherever it takes her. This week, it struck the heart of her party.
Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) became the second sitting lawmaker to announce his resignation amid allegations of sexual misconduct this week, bowing to pressure from members of Congress. The loudest calls for Franken's ouster — and the ones that sealed his fate — came from Franken's female Democratic colleagues, led by Gillibrand. Franken's announcement came on the heels of a similar one by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who stepped down amid allegations of inappropriate behavior Tuesday. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) became the third elected official and the first Republican to announce his resignation this week after learning that the Ethics Committee is reviewing accounts of potentially inappropriate behavior toward female members of his staff.
As the national conversation around sexual misconduct roils Hollywood, the media, and politics, workplaces around the country are grappling with the fallout, and Congress is no exception. Gillibrand, a proponent of strengthening campus sexual assault policies and the author of a bill to change the way sexual harassment cases are handled on the Hill, hasn't shied away from the issue. She broke ranks with Democrats earlier this year by saying that former President Bill Clinton should have resigned over his affair with 22-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky. It's a position few national Democrats have publicly taken, and a thorny issue for Gillibrand, who was elected to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat in 2009 with the full backing of The Clinton Machine.
"Women are now beginning to see power and be recognized as a force in politics."
She also was the first Democrat to call for Franken's resignation, initially in a Facebook post Wednesday morning, then in a tweet, which was followed within minutes by similar tweets from a handful of other Democratic women in the senate. Only after the women took a stand did the men follow suit. Less than 30 hours after Gillibrand's initial call, Franken fell.
"Women are now beginning to see power and be recognized as a force in politics," public affairs consultant Jeanette Hoffman tells Bustle. "It's really a watershed moment when men in power are losing their positions for doing things that have been swept under the rug for decades and generations. So it's no surprise to me to see women in Congress, like Sen. Gillibrand, seizing that opportunity to define what leadership should be in politics today."
Women Know There's Strength In Numbers
Franken's swift ouster is far from the first time women in Congress have banded together to move the needle on national policy and politics. The coalition of Democratic women senators has flexed its power throughout the year, occasionally drawing on support from female lawmakers across the aisle to shape or scrap major legislation. Republicans Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) cast key votes to stop their own party's effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) are rallying colleagues to push the Trump administration to reinstate birth control coverage. As Senate Budget Committee Chair, Murray brokered a compromise to end a budget impasse that triggered the 2013 government shutdown.
"Women are no longer going to stay quiet if they’re harassed. They’re not going to accept being intimidated or having their careers threatened."
“We need women to be a part of the conversation because when women are at the negotiating table, things get done," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) tells Bustle. “From passing the Violence Against Women Act to fighting off attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, we’ve seen the power and influence of female Members of Congress on critical issues facing our country." Shaheen says she has "no doubt" the coalition of women will continue to flex its muscle on the government funding and healthcare debates to come.
“We’re experiencing a cultural shift in this country," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) tells Bustle. "Women are no longer going to stay quiet if they’re harassed. They’re not going to accept being intimidated or having their careers threatened."
“It matters who has a seat at the table, and I think having women in Congress is critical to ensuring these vital issues are addressed," Feinstein says.
In her calls for Franken's resignation, Gillibrand outlined the need for a uniform set of standards by which elected officials are held accountable. In the meantime, Democrats are taking steps to address the issue by targeting non-disclosure agreements in employment contracts, which can serve to shield sexual harassment cases from coming to light. Five weeks ago, Gillibrand introduced a bill to strengthen Congress's own system of reporting sexual misconduct and introduce mandatory sexual harassment training (the training is currently voluntary). While Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) asked leaders of the Rules Committee to make the training mandatory, Gillibrand's bill is still lacking a Republican co-sponsor.
"It should not be hard for Republicans to join this legislation," Democratic strategist Karen Finney tells Bustle. "And it should not be hard for Republicans to say that having someone like Roy Moore trolling the halls create a less safe environment for women and girls."
Letting Roy Moore Define The Republican Party
Moore is running against Democrat Doug Jones in a special election to fill the senate seat formerly occupied by Attorney General and former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. Under normal circumstances, a Democrat would have no shot at capturing a seat in the deep-red state, but Moore — a firebrand former state supreme court judge who was removed twice from the bench, and has made numerous inflammatory comments toward gay people and African-Americans — lost support after allegations ranging from questionable behavior to sexual assault surfaced with regard to relationships he had with teenage girls when he was in his 30's. Amid what has become a deeply partisan fight, President Trump and the national Republican Party have restored support for the candidate, who is bouncing back in the polls. A whopping 71 percent of Republican voters in Alabama believe the allegations against Moore are made-up. Those allegations have been brought to light by multiple women, some of whom have evidence of their relationships with Moore, and many of which share strikingly similar details.
"When you take people who are very supportive of a man who is deeply religious, stands for the Constitution, and is of moral standing, and there are allegations thrown against him, human behavior is to not change their mind, but to dig in," says Joshua Klapow, a Birmingham-based clinical psychologist who's become a frequent commentator on the election for statewide media. "People are saying, there's no way that the man I know would do this. It is not unique to politics and it is not unique to public figures."
Dems Stake Out The 'Moral High Ground'
In ousting Franken from his seat, the Democrats are making a play to reclaim the moral high ground by drawing a contrast between their own zero-tolerance policy and Republicans' embrace of Moore.
Finney says the Republican party is facing "a test of moral leadership."
"I think they will pay dearly if they don't join in being a part of ensuring that this stops," Finney says.
"It's about standing up for the things you believe in," Hoffman tells Bustle. "There may be a reluctancy from members of congress to break away from that old boy's club, so [Gillibrand] is speaking out for what she thinks is right and really I think filling a vacuum of leadership in the democratic party for the new generation."
One major Democratic Party leader, Nancy Pelosi, came under fire after some viewed her simultaneous defense of Conyers and criticism of Moore as hypocrisy. Pelosi later reversed course, setting in motion Conyer's resignation. The informal leader of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, is seeing her own record on defending women being questioned, with regard to the allegations made against her husband.
"I think the credibility of the old guard is coming into question at a point in time when women in particular are saying, 'enough is enough,'" Hoffman says.
As to whether Gillibrand could be the face of the new guard and a bright enough star to win the White House in 2020, Hoffman says the junior New York Senator is increasing her profile and upping her credibility as a crusader for women.
"In a Democratic primary, it certainly carries a lot of weight," Hoffman says, "but when it comes to the general election, women are sophisticated voters" who cast their vote over a spectrum of issues. "They're not going to vote for another woman just because she's a woman."