We can perhaps count it as progress when a powerful woman says she was sexually harassed at work and no one with any kind of platform says the harassment was okay. But that is a pretty low bar. And there are other ways to undermine a woman who talks publicly about such behavior, as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand can see for herself this week.
In the New York Democrat's forthcoming book, “Off the Sidelines,” Gillibrand writes that when her weight fluctuated around the birth of her children, one older senator squeezed her waist and said, “Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby.” A House colleague warned her about becoming “porky,” and another offered the unsolicited consolation that “You know, Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat."
One political reporter has already apologized for accusing Gillibrand of making the whole thing up. Less egregiously, but still missing the point, were several male political reporters' complaints that the senator should have named names.
Earlier this year, in the wake of Elliot Rodger’s shooting rampage in Santa Barbara, Twitter erupted with women using the hashtag #yesallwomen to share their experiences -- from outright violence and to everyday harassment. Gillibrand's tale shows that sexual harassment is so ubiquitous even U.S. senators are objectified by their peers. The storytelling has to happen on each woman's terms -- whether she's a senator or not.
In an ideal world, women would be able to do their jobs without their bodies being fodder for constant commentary. (When Gillibrand did lose weight, she found herself under a completely different, but still inappropriate, form of scrutiny.) In a slightly less ideal world, all women would feel like they had nothing to lose by outing the creeps by name, as opposed to having the scrutiny put on them and their stories instead. And in the world we have, women who experience this kind of behavior face a series of unappealing options.
Second-guessing Gillibrand's decision not to name names as if there is nothing else at stake simply ignores reality.
As Kay Steiger at Talking Points Memo wrote, “It’s like no one has ever heard of Anita Hill.” It’s been over 20 years since Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about Clarence Thomas allegedly sexually harassing her, and yet was treated as if she herself were on trial. There are more women in the Senate now (partly thanks to the Hill effect), but victim-blaming is still very much with us.
Political power isn’t much of a shield when you’re accusing an even more powerful man, only then to be accused of trying to ruin his career or legacy. Gillibrand has been in Congress since 2007, and we don’t even know if these male commenters, whom she describes as older, are still alive. Imagine her being accused of tarnishing the name of a dead man. Or imagine her naming a man, spending weeks dealing with his all-but-inevitable denial, and trying to then get on with the business she came to Washington to do.
These are the same calculations that any woman who experiences workplace harassment – or worse – faces. Does Gillibrand bear a special responsibility, as a woman in a position of more power -- more than, say, an intern who might face similar treatment? Maybe yes, if she thought there would be accountability -- which is not a foregone conclusion. And these conversations among women often happen in back channels.
In any case, no one could credibly accuse Gillibrand of failing to use her position to help other women – she has doggedly pursued reform of sexual assault policy on campus and in the military (despite fierce opposition from some military brass); she has encouraged other women to run for office and be politically engaged through her "Off the Sidelines" project; she was instrumental in the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which prevented gay members of the military from serving openly and which disproportionately affected women and people of color.
To say that every woman has to describe her experience on someone else's terms and then live with the consequences puts the onus on the victims, not the harassers. And it sets an impossible bar, the result of which would likely be the least appealing option of all: public silence.