Angie Buhl O’Donnell and Samantha Spawn opened the door to a conversation about sexism in the Capitol with their accusations of sexual harassment and assault. À la Weinstein and “Me Too“, more than a dozen women come through that door in probably the single-most important political story in this weekend’s South Dakota news, Dana Ferguson and Megan Raposa’s report on “Sexism in the Statehouse.”
Argus Leader Media reached out to every woman currently serving in the Legislature as well as many former legislators, lobbyists, interns and pages. Many of the more than 30 women interviewed said sexism in Pierre is nothing new.
Longtime legislators and lobbyists describe the atmosphere as a “good old boys’ club.” Women have never been proportionately represented in the Legislature, and for much of the last decade, they’ve accounted for only about 1 in 5 lawmakers.
The boys’ club mentality is exacerbated by the Capitol’s remote location, more than three hours from the state’s largest cities. Far from home and their families, male legislators are well-positioned to do what they want without fear of consequences.
“Men have the feeling that they can just behave any way they want and get away with it,” said former Rep. Peggy Gibson, D-Huron. “There’s a ‘what happens in Pierre stays in Pierre’ mentality.”
Gibson and others made sure newcomers to the Capitol were warned about the sexism they’d likely face, though harassment is not commonly discussed among those working in Pierre [Dana Ferguson and Megan Raposa, “Sexism in the Statehouse: Women Detail Harassment in Pierre,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2017.10.21].
None of the women speaking out name specific offenders.
Joining Gibson in speaking on the record to Ferguson and Raposa about sexist, objectifying language and behavior in Pierre and the culture of intimidating women into silence:
- Former legislator Paula Hawks, who briefly shook up her U.S. House race against Kristi Noem last year by making public her story of being raped in college. Hawks says “90 percent of the time” Pierre offers a “safe culture” but “The fact that that exists, even to a small extent, is unacceptable.”
- Former lobbyist Ro Ann Redlin
- Former lobbyist Tiffany Campbell
- Former legislator Caitlin Collier
- Rep. Susan Wismer (D-1/Britton), who recalls harassment when she was an intern in the 1970s.
- Former legislator Lora Hubbel
- Former legislator Elaine Roberts.
Poo-pooing the problem:
- Rep. Elizabeth May (R-27/Kyle): ““I have never felt uncomfortable…. I’ve never felt out-gunned. I’ve never felt my opinion didn’t matter.”
- Sen. Kris Langer (R-25/Dell Rapids), who claims these reports are just Democratic smear tactics: “It’s not something that’s ever bothered me…. There’s never anything said that you wouldn’t tell a good friend.”
- Former House Speaker Dean Wink: “I think the South Dakota Legislature is probably considered one of the safest for women… There are obviously exceptions from time to time.”
- Lt. Gov. Matt Michels, who presides over the Senate: “Any perception that there is some sort of culture that exists during the legislative session, I would absolutely reject that out of hand.”
- Numerous 2017 interns, who say “they never experienced sexism or harassment.”
Somewhere in the middle:
- Rep. Julie Bartling (D-21/Gregory) says she’s never been harassed, but “I believe the legislators are becoming more cautious as to what is going on and how it’s perceived.”
Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton says legislators could use “awareness training.” (How one ropes lobbyists into such training is an open question.) House Majority Leader Lee Qualm says he’s open to more discussion.
In the online discussion, frequent blog commenter Anne Beal proves women can be sexist pigs, too, by trying to distinguish between sexism at the Capitol and sexism at the bars:
The State House is a business environment. A bar is a social environment.
If people go to a bar after work, start drinking, dancing, and flirting, well, that’s what happens in bars. If two people go into a bar together, that’s a date. If they go alone, that’s cruising.
If a woman doesn’t want men hitting on her, she doesn’t go to bars unescorted.
Of course there are some people who say that a woman should be able to go to a bar by herself and drink all she wants and nobody should bother her, but she should let the waitress or bartender know “I don’t want anybody buying me drinks tonight” so that they can make sure it doesn’t happen. She might explain she’s just had a tough day and wants to get hammered all by herself.
Otherwise some guy will have a drink sent over to her and she’ll be expected to let him join her. So the staff needs to know ahead of time.
There was a time when everybody understood these things but now it seems too many people don’t [Anne Gross Beal, comment under Facebook post of Ferguson/Raposa story, 2017.10.21].
Here Beal is contending that the default setting for women at bars is “Fair Game!” and that women have the burden to remove themselves from public ogling, groping, and other objectifying behavior. In other words, Beal is saying life is a meat market, and women are meat that men are welcome to sample until told otherwise.
Let’s reverse that. Let’s tell otherwise now.
Women are not meat. Women do not exist to satisfy men’s lust. Women are not ours to grab, proposition, or ogle. Women don’t need to jump through hoops to invoke their rights. Their rights exist from birth, before they say a word, and we men have an obligation to respect those rights.
The burden is not on women to tell men to leave them alone. The burden is on men to leave women alone.
Update 09:33 CDT: Former legislator Fred Deutsch wants equal time for his perceived grievances. Dana Ferguson is willing to give it:
Go for it, Dana: let’s hear Fred’s woeful false equivalency and tearful tale of men oppressed by women in Pierre.