#FeministFriday: “Women on Capitol Hill” Edition | Vol. 2 / No. 30.2

It's okay, guys -- there's a photographer there to make sure nothing happens. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) - The Official White House Photostream, Public Domain
It’s okay, guys — there’s a photographer there to make sure nothing happens. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) – The Official White House Photostream, Public Domain

In this week’s #FeministFriday post, Elle takes a look at the problems with being a female staffer on Capitol Hill.


You may have seen some articles recently about how a National Journal survey revealed that a variety of male politicians refuse to be alone with their female staff members, even if that decision makes the staff member’s job difficult or even impossible. The politicians do this to avoid seeming impropriety, or being accused of having an affair with their female staffers, and everyone from Jezebel to Salon to the Washington Post focused on this precise aspect of the story. We’ll come back to this topic and roll our eyes about it later, but first what you might not know is that the survey covered way more topics than this (admittedly salacious) element. The survey revealed an intriguing world in which stereotypically female traits (cooperation, compromise, empathy, nurturing, and overall “niceness”) are simultaneously encouraged and punished, where women are ignored in favor of their junior male colleagues, and where women are expected to look pretty and make the coffee no matter their position.

When asked about ways that being a woman helped them in their job, many of the respondents gave descriptions of situations in which their perceived niceness, or even their actual scarcity, worked in their favor. One woman mentioned how having a “softer touch” helped her resolve problems, while another said that the way others perceive women as being nicer made it easier to form office connections. One said that she was more confident and tougher because she was a “rarity” as a woman who was in a senior staff position, one who had to work “double overtime” and develop a “thicker skin” in order to get where she was. Another woman said that female staffers were actually “in demand,” especially from Republicans. (Maybe because the Republicans have a terrible track record with women’s issues, and think that if they say “hey, I love women, I even have TWO women on my staff!” we’ll become easily persuaded to think they aren’t terrible? I think that might have something to do with it.) When asked for advice to give to a potential female staffer, one respondent said “Don’t act like one of the guys. Women are different, think differently, speak differently. Use that perspective on behalf of your boss.” Because of course the only reason to value a unique perspective is that it benefits the (usually male) boss.

On the other side of the coin, these same qualities were also described as weaknesses, or as qualities that the women should give up in favor of more “male” qualities. After all of the positive aspects of being nice, a softer touch, and more emotional, one of the women answering the survey said that they would advise a new female staffer in the following way:

Don’t show emotion. Don’t take things personally. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your professional relationships are personal or meaningful. Keep things light and impersonal. Never, ever use the words “I feel” to begin a sentence. Men do not like drama. Any show of emotion, hyperbolic expression, or overthinking relational issues in the workplace is seen as a red flag that a woman should not be taken seriously or will detract from the culture of the organization.

…Check. One emotionless staff member automaton who makes no attempts to form meaningful relationships with coworkers, coming up. Three respondents were on the same wavelength when they suggested that a female staffer “be assertive and aggressive,” “speak up,” and “forget being polite.” One respondent said “don’t flaunt yourself,” saying that it will lead men to lose respect for the individual and for women to feel threatened by the individual. I…. don’t even know what that means? How exactly is someone supposed to flaunt, or not flaunt themselves? Are we talking decorative plumage, peacock style, or does “flaunting yourself” also include like… having ideas and speaking up? I get so confused. (Maybe it’s my tiny feminist lady-brain acting up again. Maybe they could write it out for me in pink?)

Of course, some of the women had meaningful advice about how women could improve their chances of having a fair workplace experience, such as asking for the office manual about sexual harassment, and making sure the office has a zero tolerance policy for harassment. (Depressingly, the same person who suggested this also admitted that there are offices in Congress that don’t have said manuals.) Others suggested using sources like LegiStorm to ensure that staffers are being paid fairly, or to form mentorships with senior female staffers. These are all excellent ideals, and they, along with the few women who said they had not experienced sexism in the workplace, were the small bright spots in the results. The bright spots didn’t last.

The really depressing part of the survey came during the section asking for examples of sexism in the workplace. This is where the stories of being excluded from meetings with Congressmen came into play, but wait, there’s more! Multiple women gave examples of reporters turning to male assistants when asking questions, or of visitors turning to male aides during meetings instead of the senior female staffers who can actually answer their questions. Others reported male coworkers getting the biggest office rewards, having to pressure bosses to pay them the same as the previous male worker who held the exact same job (ironically at the same time that the Lily Ledbetter Act discussion was taking place), getting called a “gentle creature” by a chief of staff, having their wardrobe and smile dissected, and being assigned the “office housework” like cleaning the staff kitchen or bringing in baked goods for birthdays. There were also reports of female-on-female sexism, and “mean-girl” atmospheres that included Congresswomen being cruel to their own female staff members. The most cringe-worthy report was from a woman who had been a staffer in the 1990s who was harassed by the male chief of staff on her team. He asked her about what color her underwear was, and tried to give her back rubs while typing memos. Excuse me while I throw up forever. (I seem to have to do this every week. Maybe I need a new line of work. At least we know I’m not going to be signing up to be a female staff member in Washington, DC.)

Now, to return to the issue that caught the attention of various news outlets: the fact that Congressmen are so worried about the perception of infidelity and sexual impropriety that they refuse to let female staffers take part in the same closed-door meetings or one-on-one discussions that their male colleagues are allowed to partake in. One respondent discusses an “office rule” that she couldn’t be alone with the Congressman she worked for, while another said that she had to have an extra male staffer present at certain events where she would be with the boss who was “like a second dad” to her. She discussed how this made her job more difficult, a sentiment that was echoed by another woman who said that her boss had never taken a “closed-door” meeting with her at any point in their twelve-year off-and-on work relationship, even when she was in a senior leadership position. Another Congressman wouldn’t allow women to drive him anywhere.

In a follow-up, the National Journal said that they had contacted various staffers who had never experienced or heard of this kind of policy, which is a relief. But the fact that it exists at all (let alone in enough offices that multiple female staffers would bring it up in the survey) brings up a few problems. The first is that it costs women job opportunities and opportunities for advancement. If women can’t confer with their bosses about sensitive matters, then the women might not be brought on to be in a position to care about those sensitive matters, or may not be promoted to a level where they could even expect to have such meetings with their boss. It might lead male colleagues to be promoted past female staffers, as male staffers get more chances to endear themselves to their boss, take part in vital advising positions, and attend important events with their employer. The second problem is that it might be illegal, and that female staffers could have a case for gender discrimination. The third problem is that it’s just freaking insulting. It assumes that female staffers and male Congressmen are simply physically incapable of being alone in the same room and not ravishing each other. Under this logic, I should never have a male doctor, or male academic advisor, or male employer, because the second the door closes behind us 70s porno music is going to start out of nowhere and I’m going to take my shirt off while making some kind of terrible sex-based pun.

The fourth problem, and to me, possibly the biggest problem, is that policies like these are only concerned about perception, and not the actual issue of sexual indiscretion and sexual harassment in Washington. The policy is akin to taking out your fire alarm, but not bothering to stop your habit of placing scented candles next to piles of tissue paper and frayed electrical cords. As long as there’s no perception that your house is on fire, you’re totally fine! Sexual indiscretions in politics are an issue. There’s Tennessee Republican Scott DesJarlais, who didn’t let the fact that he pressured his mistress to have an abortion stop him from voting for a federal 20-week abortion ban. There’s the “family values” concerned Missouri House Speaker John Diehl who sexted his college student-intern. In a sadly unusual move, Diehl actually resigned from the legislature in addition to his rather pathetic apology. Of course the Missouri Southern State University also shut down its internship program, which seems to be punishing the wrong set of people. There’s the Virginia delegate who is now running for Senate who had an affair with his seventeen-year-old secretary, impregnated her when she was eighteen, and then weirdly denied/confirmed/denied/confirmed doing so. Then of course there is aptly-named Anthony Weiner and his dick picsJohn Edwards fathering a child with his mistress while his wife was undergoing cancer treatment, and Eliot Spitzer having sex with almost every escort in New York City. And of course, there’s the affair that probably led to the “no one-on-one meetings” rule in the first place, Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinksy. But the problem at the heart of all of these incidents is not “a man and a woman were alone in a room together for an amount of time.” It’s that men in an environment of entitlement and political power are entering into sexual relationships with the women that work with them instead of acting like a professional. The problem is that men are, in many cases, taking advantage of their position and advantage of the women who work for them.

This same sense of entitlement pervades the rest of the issues discussed by the women interviewed in the piece. Men are still making the rules about what the “ideal” female staffer looks and acts like. Women are simultaneously expected to be emotional and emotionless, soft-spoken and aggressive, careful about their appearance but not flaunting their appearance, competent at their job and accepting of not being allowed to do their job. I have the utmost respect for the women who have managed to navigate these contrary sets of rules and expectations, and who have managed to find success despite the unreasonable expectations that are placed on them. But am I alone in thinking that the seat of our democracy is a place where a woman should have an easier time of being treated equal to their male colleagues?


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week in Tomorrow. When she’s not keeping doors open in the capitol to avoid accidentally having an affair with a congressman, she studies gender in popular culture.