The incidents occurred years or even decades ago, usually when the women were young newcomers to Congress. They range from isolated comments at one hearing, to repeated unwanted come-ons, to lewd remarks and even groping on the House floor. Coming amid an intensifying national focus on sexual harassment and gender hostility in the workplace, the revelations underscore that no woman is immune, even at the highest reaches of government.
Republican Rep. Mary Bono (R-CA) - serving California for 15 years until 2012 - recounted increasingly inappropriate exchanges with a colleague, whom she eventually confronted.
“Instead of being ‘how’s the weather, how’s your career, how’s your bill,’ it was ‘I thought about you while I was in the shower.’ So it was a matter of saying to him ‘That’s not cool, that’s just not cool.’”
Bono, as well as the others who came forward, declined to name the colleague and said he continues to serve in office.
“It is a man’s world, it’s still a man’s world,” Bono said. “Not being a flirt and not being a bitch. That was my rule, to try to walk that fine line.”
In an account published by the Washington Post, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) referenced an occasion when a male colleague said he wanted to "associate" himself with her remarks, and also "associate with the gentle lady." Boxer said the comment received laughter and a second from the committee chairman.
“That was an example of the way I think we were thought of, a lot of us. ... It’s hostile and embarrasses, and therefore could take away a person’s power,” she said.
The accusations continued with Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA):
“When I was a very new member of Congress in my early 30s, there was a more senior member who outright propositioned me, who was married, and despite trying to laugh it off and brush it aside it, would repeat. And I would avoid that member,” said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif. She added that she would warn other new female members about the lawmaker in question, but she declined to identify him, while saying he remains in Congress.
“It is not a victim-friendly process. It is an institution-protection process,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who has unsuccessfully pushed to overhaul how harassment cases are handled. “I think we would find that sexual harassment is rampant in the institution. But no one wants to know, because they’d have to do something about it.”
Speier recently went public with her own story, a sexual assault by a male chief of staff when she worked as a congressional staffer. In spite of her desire to see change within the system, she believes it's up to the women in Congress to stand up for themselves.
“I think the women in Congress are big girls. The equalizer that exists in Congress that doesn’t exist in other settings is that we all get paid the same amount and we all have a vote, the same vote. So if you have members that are demeaning you it’s because you’re letting them.”
Bono does not entirely agree, though she did find it empowering to confront her harasser.
“My career didn’t suffer, I didn’t suffer,” Bono said. “But it did happen.”