“It’s like being back in high school.”
It was 2005, and that is how a male colleague described what it was like to work in the state Capitol. After nearly a decade at the Inquirer covering small towns, Philadelphia City Hall, and the state Capitol in Trenton, I was boxing up my belongings to move westward to cover state government in the Pennsylvania Capitol.
I didn’t bother asking what he meant. I had worked in political power nerve centers before. Every civics textbook teaches that making laws should be devoid of hubris and ego — but I understood that there is a certain cutthroat culture that lingers like a toxic haze over the process.
But my colleague’s words came back to me last week, as dozens of female legislators, lobbyists, and political consultants in California, Illinois, and elsewhere began coming forward to talk about pervasive sexism and harassment in their statehouses. They were emboldened to expose their shocking and sometimes terrifying encounters with men who walked their halls of power in response to the sexual-harassment scandal involving movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, and the #MeToo movement it spawned on social media.
What they described should be unfathomable: A male legislator suggesting to a female colleague that performing sexual favors might help her push through legislative initiatives. A lobbyist being accosted in the restroom by a male legislator during a social gathering at a bar, only to discover that he had locked the door, exposed himself, and begun masturbating.
Pennsylvania’s Capitol has been largely silent.
The silence belies a culture that, year after year, places men in virtually every position of power in the 253-member legislature, normalizing disparity and promoting a boys-club atmosphere that, consciously or not, relegates women and their concerns to secondary status.
Well-meaning male leaders — and there are many in Pennsylvania — can do only so much to keep that in check. Despite a bevy of zero-tolerance policies on sexual harassment on the books, there is much room for error: legislators working miles away from family and home, often being wined and dined by lobbyists they consider friends, socializing after-hours at bars and restaurants.
Today, there are 40 women in the 203-member House. There are seven women in the 50-member Senate. Some of them serve in leadership positions. But when big policy decisions are made, they’re rarely sitting around the negotiating table. In my 12 years covering state budgets, I can’t recall a single time a female legislator has been in the room when the final deals were being cut. This year was no exception.
As bleak as that sounds, it’s better than it was when I started working at the Capitol back in 2005. That year, there were only 34 women serving in the entire legislature, according to the Pennsylvania Center for Women & Politics at Chatham University, which has traced the ranks of female legislators back to the 1970s.
Walking into the Capitol that first time was like stumbling onto the set of Mad Men, or, better yet, onto a page out of a deliciously satiric Tom Wolfe novel. Men in monogrammed cuff links and custom-made suits purposely striding down the halls trailed by women, often young, often in subordinate positions. These were cigar-smoking men. You could cut the testosterone with a knife.
It was still an era where the alpha-male powerbroker was openly glorified — an aggressive, hard-charging environment that valued the art of the deal, even when the deal was riddled with conflicts of interest and special favors.
So the first time a male legislator greeted me with a hug and a sloppy kiss on the cheek, I was speechless but not entirely surprised. I raced to the bathroom right after to wash it off with soap and water.
And when another lawmaker who I was interviewing in a Capitol hallway began casually stroking my arm as he spoke to me, I removed his hand but shrugged it off as just another example of that high-school culture my colleague had warned me about.
By the time a onetime legislative leader began relentlessly needling me over the phone that the reason my stories were tough was because I wasn’t getting enough sex, I had seen and heard enough to just let it roll off my back instead of giving him the satisfaction of a reaction.
Because the truth is, for every skin-crawling example of harassment or assault that you read or hear about, there are nuanced ones that still have the intended effect to mock or degrade. Often, they are cloaked in humor, the tired and old “You know I’m just joking, right?”
Is that worth speaking out about?
It’s a question I wrestled with a few months ago, while on an all-female panel of journalists speaking to a group of smart and savvy college women. Many of them are considering careers in public policy or politics.
During the Q&A, I raised the issue of sexism in politics. After all, it was only a few years ago that Pennsylvania’s political circles were deeply shaken by the now-infamous Porngate scandal that cost more than a dozen men their jobs, including two state Supreme Court justices.
The room became animated. A female legislator who had come to listen gave a live demonstration of how she blocks incoming — and unwanted — hugs from male colleagues: She preemptively places one hand on the hugger’s shoulder while using the other to shake his hand.
One of my female colleagues had everyone stand and practice throwing their shoulders back and projecting their voices. It sends a message, she said.
It does. But few things send it as strongly and as effectively as for men to simply grow up.