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Aug 04 2013

A string of subtle but demeaning comments

The journalist Olivia Messer was pleased to return to her home state of Texas to write about the legislature. She quickly realized there was a down side.

Within weeks, I’d already heard a few horrifying stories. Like the time a former Observer staffer, on her first day in the Capitol, was invited by a state senator back to his office for personal “tutoring.” Or, last session, when Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton interrupted Marisa Marquez during a House floor debate to ask if her breasts were real or fake.

Thankfully I never experienced anything so sexually explicit. Instead, I encountered a string of subtle but demeaning comments. One of the first interviews I conducted for the Observer, in February, was with a male senator about an anti-abortion bill. I was asking questions about whether the bill would reduce access to abortion. At the end of the interview, as soon as I turned off my recorder, he said, “How old are you, sweetheart? You look so young.”

And random guys kept hitting on her.

At a certain point, after enough of these run-ins—which included male staffers from both chambers, some of whom I knew to be married, hitting on me, making comments about my physical appearance, touching my arm—it finally occurred to me that, when I was at work, I was often fending off advances like I was in a bar.

The Texas legislature is not a bar. Working there should not feel like being in a bar.

What surprised me was how many women who work in the Capitol—legislators, staffers, lobbyists, other reporters—felt the same way. Everyone, it seemed, had a story or anecdote about being objectified or patronized.

But isn’t that just what you deserve for the crude mistake of being born not male? No, it’s not.

Even the most powerful women in the Legislature experience it. When I started interviewing women lawmakers, they all—Republican and Democrat, House and Senate, rural and urban—said that being a woman in the statehouse is more difficult than being a man. Some told of senators ogling women on the Senate floor or watching porn on iPads and on state-owned computers, of legislators hitting on female staffers or using them to help them meet women, and of hundreds of little comments in public and private that women had to brush off to go about their day. Some said they often felt marginalized and not listened to—that the sexism in the Legislature made their jobs harder and, at times, produced public policy hostile to women.

Yet, despite their strong feelings, women in the Capitol rarely talk about, except in the most private discussions, the misogyny they see all the time. It’s just the way the Legislature has always been.

It’s normal. So many things are normal. Stereotypes are normal. “It’s more of a guy thing” is normal. Microaggressions are normal. Harassment is normal.

Women comprise more than half of the state’s population, yet only about 20 percent of the Legislature—just 37 of the 181 members of both chambers. Women in leadership positions are even more scarce. There have been two female governors of Texas, zero female lieutenant governors and zero speakers of the House. That means neither chamber has ever been led by a woman.

That history makes what happened on June 25—when Sen. Wendy Davis filibustered a restrictive anti-abortion bill for 11 hours—so remarkable. When the mostly male GOP majority cut her off and tried to pass the bill minutes before a midnight deadline, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte had had enough: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?” The largely female crowd in the gallery erupted and, over the next 15 minutes, shouted the Senate into paralysis. It was a rare moment when women seized control of the Capitol, and the first time I’d heard a woman lawmaker in this state publicly admit she felt sidelined.

But the moment was fleeting. Three weeks later, in a new special session, the Legislature passed the anti-abortion bill, and Gov. Rick Perry signed it. Texas politics, briefly upended, returned to normal.

Misogyny, as I had come to learn, is rampant in the Texas Capitol.

So we have to holler back.

 

 

10 comments

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  1. 1
    Marcus Ranum

    I remember my parents used to complain that I always kept my hands in my pockets. Now I have a perfect excuse.

  2. 2
    coragyps

    This ol’ boy is going to do all he can to help vote some of those SOBs out of office this next go- round. They are giving the rest of us with Y chromosomes a bad name.

  3. 3
    screechymonkey

    But it’s just flirting! How is a Texas legislator or staffer supposed to meet a woman to be his girlfriend (or mistress)? You’re condemning them all to extinction!

    Besides, maybe they’re just socially awkward / have Asperger’s / and don’t understand social cues!

    And that guy who asked whether the reporter’s breasts were real may not have been coming on to her! He may just be curious about the state of the art of plastic surgery!

    (Did I miss any, or do we all have bingo now?)

  4. 4
    Susannah

    screechymonkey, you missed “Conversational implicature”.

  5. 5
    ewanmacdonald

    You also missed “he might not have heard her properly!”

  6. 6
    Pteryxx

    Austin Democratic Rep. Donna Howard was more blunt about the behavior of some male lawmakers. “Part of it seems to be acting like middle-school boys,” she said.

    During the House budget debate in April, Brenham Republican Lois Kolkhorst and Austin Democrat Dawnna Dukes were debating an amendment. As the debate intensified, their male colleagues in the chamber started meowing and making angry-cat noises. Several times each session, men in the House will make cat noises when two women are debating.

    “It shows how there’s this immediate visceral response from the men to treat us in a demeaning way,” Howard said. “Certainly, two men can go at it, and it’s thought to be business as usual, maybe because we expect that behavior from them. But the fact is that it’s still very hard for women to be assertive without being thought of as overly aggressive.”

    When I asked Van de Putte if this immaturity is ever apparent on the Senate floor, she answered, “At times. You know, [pornographic images] on their personal iPads or something. You just say, ‘Gentlemen, don’t bring that to the floor… Just do that at home.’”

    I guess when the abortion debate was livestreamed, the Repubs that were snickering and playing Angry Birds were on their better behavior.

  7. 7
    smflex

    If you’ve never been to the Capitol Building, it’s decorated more like a steakhouse than a bar.

  8. 8
    Ophelia Benson

    I’ve walked around it on the outside but I didn’t go in (it was early in the morning). A steakhouse; snorfle.

  9. 9
    =8)-DX

    It’s normal. So many things are normal. Stereotypes are normal. “It’s more of a guy thing” is normal. Microaggressions are normal. Harassment is normal.

    Yeah. What’s odd is that you have to explain this to people. Same with racism and other bigotry. The things people consider to be “of the past” or “I never do that” are actually ubiquitous and banaal.

    Thanks for the article.

  10. 10
    iknklast

    The Texas legislature is not a bar

    It’s clear you’ve never paid much attention to the Texas legislature! ;-)

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