Column: Sexism in the Senate
WASHINGTON — “Man bites dog” is the classic definition of news. By that standard, “Male senator says something offensively sexist to female colleague” ought to be no news at all. If you’re surprised or skeptical about the remarks recounted by New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand — well, there’s only one explanation.
You must be a man.
Women reading Gillibrand’s account — this woman, certainly — think: Yup. Been there. Heard that.
Gillibrand’s book, “Off the Sidelines,” comes out next month, and the requisite pre-publication People magazine profile features some of the sexier — and sexist-ier — tidbits. At one point, Gillibrand writes of being in the House gym, “where an older, male colleague told her, ‘Good thing you’re working out, because you wouldn’t want to get porky!’”
Another time, after she lost 50 pounds, People’s Tara Fowler and Sandra Sobieraj Westfall recount, “one of her fellow Senate members approached her, squeezed her stomach, and said, ‘Don’t lose too much weight now. I like my girls chubby.’”
And this delectably sexist morsel from a Southern congressman “who said, as he held my arm, walking me down the center aisle of the House chamber, ‘You know Kirsten, you’re even pretty when you’re fat.’”
Would they talk that way to a male colleague? Of course not. That President Obama caused a Twitterstorm by wearing a tan suit to a news conference is not a welcome sign of gender equity — it’s the exception proving the immutable rule that women in public life face more scrutiny of their appearance. Ask Hillary Clinton how long it takes to get ready for the campaign trail.
Are Gillibrand’s colleagues intending to be demeaning? Not exactly. They find themselves around a younger female colleague and they don’t entirely know how to handle it. I can’t vouch for any other body parts, but their brains stop working.
As when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Gillibrand “the hottest member” of the Senate at a fundraiser. “Harry was just trying to be nice,” Gillibrand said, being nice.
As she was about the rest of the nonsense she recounted. “It was all statements that were being made by men who were well into their 60s, 70s or 80s,” Gillibrand told People. “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.”
One unproductive response to Gillibrand has been to demand that she name names. “Shouldn’t Gillbrand name these Senate guys who fat-shamed her?” tweeted New York Times reporter Nick Confessore. “Doesn’t she kind of have a responsibility to name them?”
Oh right, that would be helpful to Gillibrand, the 19 other women in the Senate, and women everywhere. Gillibrand’s “responsibility” is to her constituents and the public, and she has been impressively relentless in pursuing the issue of sexual assault, first in the military and now on college campuses, lobbying colleagues to back her proposals. How do you think this would go if she exposed them to public ridicule?
Even gently chiding them in private would be risky; I imagine the male senator ambling away, muttering something under his breath that rhymes with witch. We all face trade-offs between calling out bad behavior and doing our work effectively.
Another reaction, even more troubling, has been to question whether episodes such as the ones Gillibrand describes could possibly happen. Thus, Politico congressional reporter John Bresnahan: “I challenge this story. Sorry, I don’t believe it.” It didn’t take long for Bresnahan wisely, to beat a full retreat. “Completely moronic tweet by me on People magazine piece re Sen. Gillibrand. No excuse for popping off. I apologize,” Bresnahan tweeted, but I suspect he was not alone in his skepticism.
Sexism in the Senate is a problem that may be solving itself, thanks to two developments. At 20 women, there is now a significant (if still significantly underrepresented) cadre of female senators. Meanwhile, the older fanny-pinchers are giving way to a new generation of male senators with more experience of women (including their often high-powered wives) in the workplace.
If this sounds Pollyannaish, it tracks with my own workplace experience: Bosses and colleagues today — even the ones who aren’t women! — are less apt to say offensive things than they were 30 years ago.
More important, it comports with what I have heard privately from female senators. Which is not to take away from the importance of Gillibrand’s experience — just to underscore that it is not destined to be repeated in perpetuity.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.