People magazine revealed an intriguing bit of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) new memoir, “Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice to Change the World” that suggests that members of the Senate are not the “Distinguished Gentlemen” they are supposed to be, at least when it comes to basic manners involving female colleagues:
“Gillibrand isn’t especially offended by her coworkers’ remarks. ‘It was all statements that were being made by men who were well into their 60s, 70s or 80s,’ she says. ‘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.’ ”
Now some critics on the Right are using this as a “gotcha!”, suggesting that Gillibrand is protecting Democrats from negative attention for the same kinds of conduct that Gillibrand’s party and colleagues are quick to use against Republicans in its “war on women” strategy.
This accusation is beyond disingenuous, not to mention stupid. If Gillibrand were to publicly accuse a GOP colleague of such conduct, she would be accused, by these same critics, of being a hysteric, a bad colleague, unprofessional and petty—and they would be right. No professional woman responds to this kind of crude, obnoxious, “Look! I’ve-been-hiding-in-since-1970,” training-wheels harassment by making a public accusation that embarrasses not just the individual at fault but the organization they both work for. For Gillibrand to do this in the U.S. Senate would instantly make her a pariah even in her own party.
More importantly, it would be wrong.
Should she have mentioned the incidents at all, then? Sure. It accomplishes many objectives to do this. It alerts the clueless Senators involved that they were out of line. It lets the public know that the Senate still operates like an Old Boy’s Club where women are treated as exotic oddities—you know, like in a Fortune 500 boardroom. In a book that, like all autobiographies, is intended to put her in a positive light, the revelation lets readers know what Gillibrand has to put up with. These are all valid reasons to tell the story, though not name names.
I presume, without knowing, that the Senator dealt with these incidents the collegial and kind way anyone deals with co-workers who commit gaffes in their presence: educate them, firmly and quickly. These exact kinds of behavior launch sexual harassment suits in the private sector, but never mind that: what the hell is the matter with these men? It’s rude! It’s obviously rude, and the fact that they reached this stage of life thinking such demeaning treatment of women is acceptable is an indictment of the upbringing, attentiveness, ethical instincts and common sense.
The L.A. Times’ Robin Abearian has a different, also sexist, also obnoxious take on this issue.
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes. We’re not talking Bob Packwood here. We’re not talking about sexual harassment, or even, really, fat shaming. (Hey, that one guy said he likes ‘em chubby!) We are simply talking about the kind of offhand remark to which the pudgy have been subjected forever. The men who made such comments to Gillibrand are not “harassers.” Gillibrand is most certainly not a “victim.” And this is not an Anita Hill moment. It does offer an object lesson to men, however: If ever you are tempted to remark on a female colleague’s weight, just shove a doughnut in your mouth til the urge passes.”
- It is sexual harassment, or can easily become it. A workplace where this kind of conduct is routine is hostile to women.
- “Every woman has to put up with this” is just “everybody does it” in a skirt. How would Abearian respond if a man used that excuse for his piggish ways, as in, “Hey, get used to it! We’ve always treated women like toys and pets!”
- It isn’t just about weight. It is about women having to make sure their weight pleases men, an inherently denigrating attitude to both the particular woman, in this case Gillibrand, and women generally.
On balance, the Right’s fake indignation over Gillibrand not outing the Senatorial Pigs is more offensive that the feminist columnist’s “all men are pigs, so its hopeless” reasoning why she was correct to leave them un-named. The bottom line, however, is that Senator Gillibrand did the right thing.