Washington has all the ingredients for inappropriate sexual adventuring. For one thing, it’s full of lonely people—in particular, men disconnected from their families. We owe much of this to Newt Gingrich, who upon becoming speaker of the House in 1995 told incoming Republican freshmen to leave their families back home so that the members could concentrate on their jobs in Washington. The nation’s capital is also full of ambitious people—young things setting out on what they hope is an ever-rising path to more important jobs, whether it’s the lobbyist who sets his sights on becoming head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the lowly congressional aide who longs to take the seat one day of the congressman or senator whom he is currently serving.
This heady brew of ambition, power, loneliness, and opportunity leads to extracurricular sex of various types and of various degrees of seriousness—short-term affairs to some lasting marriages. The results can be disastrous. In 1988, former Colorado Senator Gary Hart blew a presidential campaign for lack of control of his libido. The same holds true in news media companies, where the main on-air male anchor has power over the entire staff.
By the time Washington, in the fall of 2017, got caught up in the #MeToo rebellion of women against being exploited sexually by powerful men, Hollywood had become consumed with the issue, and it had begun turning up in the media world, where such famous figures as Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose lost their jobs for using their office power for sexual domination over more junior women. The “justice” almost always came quite swiftly—which sometimes suggested that companies who employed these men were more concerned with their reputations than with finding out what, exactly, the misbehavior had been. On occasion it was something that had occurred during their previous employment. The whole issue was subsumed by a failure to make distinctions—between a hand on a backside and rape. The small village of political-media Washington became crazed with speculation about “who’s next?” and a prurient interest in what had gone on in the various cases of wandering body parts.
Last year, a number of congressmen were either forced to resign or got out, taking sudden retirement or announcing that they wouldn’t run for reelection. The most famous case of a House member’s past catching up with him was that of now-former Michigan Representative John Conyers. At 88, Conyers was the longest-serving member of the House and the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, which meant that if the Democrats won the House this November he’d be the next committee chairman, and this must have alarmed the party leaders since, among other things, Conyers was displaying signs of senility, showing up at a congressional meeting in his pajamas and the like. But eventually Conyers was forced out by the House leaders, with former Speaker Nancy Pelosi making the public and private case that Conyers had to resign. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), of which Conyers had been a founder, were upset that he was forced out.
The House miscreants were a bipartisan group, and the reasons three Republicans had to cut short their careers give a picture of the (at least recent) Rabelaisian life in the U.S. House of Representatives. After it was disclosed in December that Texas Representative Blake Farenthold had withdrawn $84,000 in public funds—kept in a presumably secret fund for such contingencies—to settle a sexual harassment complaint that his former communications director brought against him, he was eventually forced to announce that he wouldn’t run for his seat again. Arizona Representative Trent Franks resigned following allegations that he’d asked former staff members to work as surrogate mothers. And Representative Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, said he won’t seek reelection after a nude selfie that he’d sent to a former lover appeared online, and a Fort Worth newspaper printed the texts of lewd messages he’d sent to a party activist while he was still married.
A freshman Democrat, Representative Ruben Kihuen, of Nevada, hadn’t even served for a year before he was accused of having sexually harassed the finance director on his campaign. Pelosi and the other Democratic leaders called for his resignation repeatedly, and in December he said he wouldn’t run again. In January of this year a leader on the ethics committee, Republican Representative Patrick Meehan, of Pennsylvania, was found to have used funds from his congressional office fund to settle a complaint, and said that he wouldn’t seek reelection. No one believed that these few cases represented all of the sexual predatory behavior in the House.
But no case on Capitol Hill was as troubling as the one involving Al Franken. The comedian turned Democratic senator from Minnesota was suddenly faced with allegations of some minor infractions—mainly charges by several women that he had patted their bottoms while posing for pictures with them at state fairs. Some of the claims were anonymous, and many were for things he had done before he reached the Senate.
But the timing was unfortunate for Franken: The sex issue was in its first, feverish state, and it was shortly before a crucial race in Alabama for an open U.S. Senate seat, in which an erratic former Republican state judge, Roy Moore, was facing accusations that he had made advances on teenage girls. For some Senate Democrats, it wouldn’t do to have an alleged miscreant among their ranks. A small group of Senate women, led by the determined Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a would-be presidential candidate in 2020, insisted that Franken had to go.
A second complication for Franken was that some Democrats were willing to throw him to the wolves to make their case that Donald Trump’s past behavior toward women—19 had complained—should be reviewed and held against him somehow. And members of the CBC complained that party leaders were more willing to punish a black member of Congress than a white one.
Thus, Franken was an inconvenience and had to go. Besides, who knew when there would be another charge? So a talented Democrat was forced to resign from the Senate, and democracy was short-circuited. It turned out that not just Minnesota Democrats were angry that Franken had been railroaded out of the Senate; his treatment drew a national backlash. Taken aback, some Senate Democrats expressed remorse, and some, Gillibrand included, said perhaps Franken should have been allowed to make his case to the ethics committee. But it was too late.
Backlash to the #MeToo phenomenon hinges on two obfuscations. First, there are critics who fret that the discussion of predation at its heart is overly puritanical: a sex panic, as Masha Gessen would have it, on the part of censorious prudes who would forbid so much as a flirtatious glance between colleagues. Then there are those who speculate about a societal “rush to judgment” or “mob rule,” and who bemoan a lack of proportionality and due process. Both arguments miss the real context of the conversation: the workplace. The first set of criticisms elides the boardroom with the barroom. The second sees no difference between professional consequences and personal (or legal) ones.
New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister and others have grappled with the kind of myopia that reduces systemic oppression to mere thwarted desire—noting, among other things, that harassment is legally a form of gender discrimination, not violent crime (though it certainly can be that as well). But if concerns over sexual mores minimize the scope of the problem, those over excessive punishment make the outcomes for the accused seem worse than they actually are.
Of course, these objections often come from the same people. They argue on the one hand that we should judge acts of sexual harassment on a relative scale—a groping of the backside is not a rape, and so forth—but also manage to fuse job loss or even public censure into a single existential sanction. They have surveyed what has happened to Al Franken, John Conyers, Mark Halperin, Glenn Thrush, and Leon Wieseltier, this magazine’s former literary editor, to name a few, and decided their consequences all equate to the same thing: “professional death penalties,” or a “professional decapitation,” a “lynch mob,” or, vividly, “kill[ing] a guy.”
Perhaps these capital sentences represent confusion about rights under the law and in the court of public opinion. I’d be much more concerned about a lack of due process in the former than the latter. As for the sentencing itself, for the record: Harvey Weinstein–Assaulter Zero, as it were—was removed from the Weinstein Company and has been professionally ostracized. When I last checked, he was still alive and very, very wealthy. Franken, alive, has left the Senate but still has loyal defenders. Halperin: still breathing, still rich. Thrush, living (sober), is back at work at The New York Times, albeit off the White House beat. (Whether that’s a demotion or an acknowledgment of irony only the Times knows.) Also, a helpful reminder: It’s been less than six months since the Times broke its first Weinstein story. That’s hardly long enough for a decent sabbatical, much less to pronounce someone’s career “dead.” As someone who has resigned, been fired, and briefly ducked out of sight from my professional community (I was in rehab), I can attest to all of these things being different things, which feel very different when they happen, and they have very different effects on your professional and personal life—but none of them are anything like death.
I’m not the first and won’t be the last to note that the hyperbole of #MeToo skeptics who equate one’s career and one’s life never seems to apply to those who suffer harassment. One Halperin target said that he threatened to derail her career when he was rebuffed, and at least one decided to leave journalism altogether because the experience soured her on the industry. Same with one of the women Charlie Rose attempted to seduce. Thrush allegedly retaliated by spreading the rumor that the woman he propositioned had in fact come on to him, a gossip land mine in a competitive office. And then there are the untold numbers of women whose interactions with these kinds of predators caused them to doubt themselves rather than apply for that more prestigious job, or hang back from an important meeting because they didn’t know if their boldness would be mistaken for sexual availability. If we judge these men by the damage they did to women’s careers, each of these famous figures is, at best, guilty of manslaughter; at worst, a serial killer. Can their defenders still argue that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime?
In 2007, when I was 24, two years after I moved to Washington, D.C., to cover politics for The New Republic, I joined an email listserv for journalists and policy wonks. One day, a stranger replied to a note I had posted on private equity tax reform. In my response to him, I quoted a line from the Beach Boys’ song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
“To understand ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice,’ you have to read Jameson’s Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” he emailed, with a tongue-in-cheek nerdiness that was common on the listserv. “It will change your life.”
Rebecca Solnit has written that the men she met in the 1980s “seemed to feel that they had to be more successful than whoever they were attracted to,” and that “a lot of girls learn to hide their intelligence.” By the time I grew up in the 1990s, though, my ambitions and intelligence went unhidden. At school, I was encouraged to study physics, math, and politics; I was cast as Abraham Lincoln and King Lear in school plays, and nobody blinked an eye.
Over the course of the next day, I exchanged nearly a dozen messages with the—married, I would learn—man on the listserv. Let’s call him “T.” He was unusually witty and well-read, as well as an experienced reporter. We bantered about politics, policy, our taste in music, and a topic that fascinated me at that time, love in old novels. I liked him, and I felt thrilled that he seemed to think I was on his level. I thought we might develop a new kind of friendship, one that tested the boundaries of my capacity for wordplay and political analysis, riffing on everything from Congress to American Idol.
Then T wrote me a note saying that “I guess” we should meet. “Despite your feisty, witty writerly persona, the guy is still supposed to pick up the hints that this would be not untoward—you dropped a few.” When I replied that I hadn’t consciously dropped any “hints,” he wrote back to say that our conversation itself was the hint. The back-and-forth about books and music, and, in particular, love in old novels, was a “signal” that I was “an erotic being,” interested in a personal and physical connection, rather than one merely of the mind. Our email exchanges “derive from the desire,” he claimed. “They’re actually a rather typical form of sublimated attraction.”
I was crestfallen at this sentiment, but I soon realized that parts of my personality that feminism was supposed to have liberated me to discover and express publicly—my ambitions to work in traditionally “male” spaces, my interests in stereotypically “male” things like military history, and my intellect itself—had somehow been converted into markers of “hotness.” Another young male writer with whom I engaged in an online political chat wrote, “Maybe I’m just distractible, particularly by smart women.” A close friend who is a globe-trotting feminist activist told me she strongly believed her last boyfriend, a young male journalist, dated her mostly because it reflected well on him, in the way men used to take pride in their women’s slim waistlines. Another woman shared with me that her husband, for fun, once chose the handle “Dolores Colorado” in an early online chat room. After “Dolores” got into an aggressive argument with another chat-room member, a male onlooker sent her messages telling her how much he liked her assertiveness—messages that quickly turned into horny missives like: “Picture this. You and I are on the banks of the Nile. You are wearing a skintight Catwoman suit.”
A male friend of mine observed that men today “like women who they think are like guys.” Nothing wrong with that per se, except that it forces women either to retreat from these postfeminist markers of hotness, or to wonder sometimes if they are taking them on for the sex appeal—if ambition, assertiveness, intellectual achievement, and pantsuit wearing aren’t just another form of primping for the sexual marketplace: corsets and makeup for an age when we supposedly no longer have to wear corsets and makeup. I’m struck by how many women journalists in Washington, today, write chiefly or at least substantially about subjects directly related to women. Is it because it’s one of the few intellectual topics with which they can engage without prompting sexualization from male colleagues?
Going back through my long correspondence with T made me sad. He deftly picked up on all my jokes and suggested I was destined for a particular kind of writing and persona—a “midcentury elegance” of the kind that I, in my most secret fantasies, also imagined for myself. I was having more fun with him than I had with almost anybody at that time in my life. Sometimes I was flirting, indeed. Perhaps most anything we really love, whether it be books or politics or mountain biking, becomes erotic; the deeper we go, the more we feel we are penetrating parts of ourselves we had never imagined were there before, which feels a lot like great sex feels.
But research has shown that children tasked with doing drawings for a reward—a gold star—become disinterested and do worse drawings compared with children not given a gold star; the gold-star kids apparently start to presume that the reward is their real motivation, not their love of drawing. So, too, with women. When the constant reward for intellectual achievement, wonkiness, or political ambition is sexual appreciation, women may become confused: Will their intellects be treated not as ends in and of themselves but as “signals” of some other ambition?
T suggested that it was the latter. In one of our conversations, he asserted that, for men, talking deeply and intellectually about love with a woman they aren’t attracted to would be as lame as talking football “with someone who wasn’t a football fan.” In other words, intellectual engagement with a woman is only maximally exciting insofar as it’s intertwined with women’s ultimate game: flirting, erotic posturing. Many men probably think they’re doing a good thing when they praise a woman’s intellect instead of her body, but a come on is a come on is a come on.
My exchanges with T became more and more awkward and then exhausting. He answered messages from me like, “Who’s a famous political centrist?” with “I’m thinking, but I’m naked and about to get into the shower.” Then he began to insist that tiny comments of mine had deeply hurt him, requesting some unnamed form of placation. He used my intelligence as a justification for why I should understand the erotic power I held over him and the desire that this power inevitably provoked. I was never physically assaulted. But I lost a kind of innocence: the sense that I could seek a connection with a man that I wouldn’t have to manage carefully; that enthusiasm shown for my mind was just that and not veiled foreplay.
Recently, another male writer effusively direct-messaged me on Twitter about an article I wrote. When I Googled him and discovered he was gay, I felt an enormous, physical wash of relief—a relief that made me realize I would not have been able to reply to this man at all if he hadn’t been gay. The losses mount up here: the loss of creative and political partnerships that could be forged between straight men and women and the loss of potential kinds of work, and even play, for women themselves. Ultimately, I blocked T’s messages. In doing so, I had to unplug a part of myself—the part that my original connection with him had lit up; the part that was fully equal with my male colleagues, both in what I could do and what I was allowed to do. The writer who could bring her whole self into an intellectual exchange with a man, expecting it to change her life.
A few years ago now, I moved to Washington, D.C., to take a job monitoring and analyzing the activities of the Christian far right. I spent my days tracking First Amendment cases and far-right policy pushes—everything from voucher programs that supported religious schools to Roy Moore’s doomed attempts to keep same-sex marriage out of Alabama. It was a movement I already knew well. I had graduated a couple of years earlier from Cedarville University, one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the country, and Cedarville itself wasn’t much of a departure for me: It was simply a progression from the strictures of the religious subculture I’d already been raised in. I had left that world without regret but couldn’t ignore the dangers it posed to civil liberties: I chose work that allowed me to keep a wary eye on its endeavors.
The culture of the religious right is not, in my experience, one that celebrates a woman’s individual merits. We are weaker vessels to be protected, wombs to be filled. The privileges of men—professional, spiritual, sexual—delimit the borders of our lives. These kinds of doctrinal beliefs reside not only inside evangelical or fundamentalist churches. People with real power in this country are convinced of their veracity, and those people have tried, and often succeeded, to pass laws and implement policies that afford these doctrines official force.
In my work every day, I watched as a well-organized, well-funded movement waged legal and political war against laws and customs intended to protect the rights of women and LGBTQ people. At times it seemed to me that they were hoping to free themselves from the consequences of their own sexual misconduct and abuse. Doug Phillips, former president of Vision Forum, a now-defunct fundamentalist church in Texas, resigned from his ministry in 2013 after reports emerged that he’d sexually abused his family’s nanny. Bill Gothard, a leader in the Christian homeschooling movement, resigned from his ministries the following year after women came forward to say that he had sexually abused them as girls. Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, seemed like an average conservative megachurch, until families went public with complaints about the church’s leadership pressuring them to keep quiet after their children were sexually abused by other congregants. There are, of course, many other examples. And then there is the fact that so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, despite his open admission of sexual assault. They voted for Roy Moore in Alabama, too, despite the multiple, credible accounts that he sexually abused and harassed underage girls. Trump has his evangelical critics, and so did Moore, but the movement largely stood by them, making abused women collateral damage in an endless culture war.
The Christian right bears no unique burden for having protected perpetrators of sexual misconduct. If the events of these last few months prove nothing else, it is that all parts of American society, religious and secular, have to carry that weight. But sexual misconduct is a story and a byproduct of sexism, which is inherent to the movement, and the misogynist laws advanced by my former brethren have real consequences. Why should a woman with no agency over her reproductive decisions be trusted with sexual autonomy? Why would a woman who has sex before marriage be shocked that her boss assumes she’s there for his taking?
The spectacle of sexual harassment in ostensibly liberal industries like Hollywood and in the media seemed at first to offer a kind of moral high ground to the religious right. The Pence Rule isn’t such a bad idea after all, is it? Men really shouldn’t go to dinner with women other than their wives, and they should steer clear of the wet bar at social gatherings unless their wives are there to assure their good behavior. Complementarianism—the idea that women should submit to men in the home and in the church sanctuary—protects women, doesn’t it? That moral high ground is a mirage, a fiction, sustained only by the silence of women.
With Trump in office, the Christian right is ascendant, and fighting sexual abuse ranks low among its ambitions. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, one of Trump’s most pious cabinet members, has used her authority to shrink the size of the department’s already overworked Office of Civil Rights and met with men’s rights activists who dispute the prevalence of campus sexual assault. The Justice Department recently argued that the government should be able to force a teenage asylum-seeker to continue a pregnancy against her wishes—even though she’d survived a rape. Again and again, it becomes apparent that a society dominated by the beliefs and practices of the Christian right is one in which misconduct can expect to flourish.
Last summer, Alice Wu, then an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, finished her study on the way people talk on the popular economics job-hunting web site called Economics Job Market Rumors. This web site is where economists and economists-to-be anonymously discuss, debate, and dissect who’s hiring, who’s applying, and what visitors to the site think of the people on both sides of these transactions. Wu scraped the site’s data and conducted a textual analysis, parsing out the words that this online community used when discussing men and women candidates. Among the top 20 words associated with women candidates were “hotter,” “tits,” “anal,” “marrying,” “pregnant,” “gorgeous,” “horny,” and “crush.” In stark contrast, online discussions about male candidates tended to focus predominantly on the content of their work (“adviser,” “pricing,” “mathematician”).
One could dismiss this hostility toward women as the bad behavior of a small group of anonymous trolls, but it aligns with the fact that there are far fewer women in economics than men. As female economists move up the career ladder, they have fewer and fewer women peers. Only about 32 percent of new economics Ph.D.s are women. Women make up just under a third of assistant professors in economics, but their numbers drop to 25 percent among associate professors and about 13 percent among full professors. And to be clear, it’s not about the math. Women account for more than 40 percent of undergraduate math majors. It is important to note that gender is not the only problem facing the profession: The percentage of nonwhite undergraduate economics students is about 15 percent, and this number declines considerably as careers advance.
This lack of diversity is well-known. The University of Michigan’s Justin Wolfers wrote about Wu’s study in his New York Times column, and Olivier Blanchard, the former economic counselor and director of the research department at the International Monetary Fund, wrote a letter urging the web site to be “more aggressive in removing those posts (quoting from the site’s declaration) ‘that are too critical of someone’s personal life,’ or reflect ‘racism, homophobia, and sexism.’” At this year’s annual economics conference, a number of scholars presented papers examining why there are so few women in economics and what we can do about it. A recent working paper by the University of North Carolina’s Anusha Chari and Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham of the New York Federal Reserve even found that the overall share of women participating in a prestigious annual economics conference hasn’t improved in over 15 years.
But the profession has been slow to deliver real fixes. One reason for this may be that economists are predisposed to believe discrimination is nonsensical. Standard economic theory tells us that firms—and people—who favor one group over another irrespective of their productivity will be driven out by market competition. On this principle, companies that harbor men who sexually harass the women they work with should be less successful than those in which workers feel safe and valued. Those who don’t see women as equals but as sexual objects should, the thinking goes, find themselves at a disadvantage. Markets can—and will—deliver the most optimal outcomes if we just let them work. Allow professionals to compete, and the most talented people will simply rise to the top.
Marion Fourcade, a Berkeley sociologist who studies economists, points out that U.S. economists tend to be “more favorable to economic ideas based on free trade and market competition” than their British, French, or German peers. The economics job market in the United States is emblematic of this market-oriented preference. Job advertisements go up in the early fall; candidates are screened at the annual economics meeting the first weekend in January; and by early spring, Economics Job Market Rumors is abuzz with discussions. Everybody knows who’s on top and who’s not.
Because the process is so market-driven, the question that economists need to ask is whether gender and racial bias in the profession indicates something more troubling about economics itself. If men cannot overcome their sexism toward women when discussing the qualifications of female economists, then how can they assume that any job market—or any market—is free of discriminatory bias? If the market for economists isn’t efficient, what market is? Amanda Bayer and Cecilia Elena Rouse tackled this issue in their 2016 article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. They argue that “the social science discipline of economics will be strengthened if it is built on a broader segment of the population,” and outline steps the profession could take to address the problem. Some of these are simple, such as changing the way we teach undergraduate economics, and some will require more work, such as providing better early career support and breaking down implicit bias in the profession.
Economists need to heed Bayer and Rouse’s call for action. For any profession—but particularly for an academic discipline that describes itself as scientific—to reject its own core findings is stupid at best, deeply hypocritical at worst. This is the profession that established the fact that labor-market discrimination contributes to lower productivity, lower economic growth, and lower wage growth. Of all people, economists cannot fail to address discrimination in our own ranks.
As the United States faces up to the prevalence and impact of sexual misconduct in the workplace, the consistent story we have heard from survivors, time and again, is one of power imbalance. Actual or perceived, the distance between power held by men and by women in this country has directly resulted in cycles of harassment, misconduct, and abuse from which our society has looked away for decades.
Imagine, then, the breeding ground for abuse created in the nation’s capital by some of the world’s most powerful men—and it is usually men—for the domestic workers laboring behind the closed doors of their Washington residences.
Domestic workers are the nannies who care for children, the house cleaners who manage the chaos of a busy household, and the caregivers who support those who are elderly and living with disabilities. They work in private homes, usually without a formal work agreement, in the shadows of the economy. They are mostly women, disproportionately women of color, and often immigrants—both documented and undocumented. They are invisible, and yet their labor powers our society. They do the work that makes all other work possible.
Domestic work has deep roots in the legacy of slavery and colonialism. In the United States, it was first performed, unpaid, by black women who were enslaved, women in indentured servitude, or those who were considered “stay-at-home.” Increasingly, the work is disproportionately done by immigrant women. It is undervalued by society and often not even considered “work.” These people are often underpaid: According to a 2012 report from the National Domestic Workers Alliance, almost half make an hourly wage that is less than what is needed to support a family. Combine these social and economic conditions with the fact that domestic workers were specifically excluded from the labor protections of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and you find yourself with tremendous vulnerability to abuse.
The hierarchical disparities between a domestic worker and her employer creates even further opportunities for misconduct. Those differences are compounded when the employer, as is sometimes the case in Washington, is a global leader, foreign diplomat, or U.S. politician, or enjoys diplomatic immunity. In the last scenario, the worker’s very presence in the country—her visa—is contingent on her employer. And because the highest levels of diplomatic immunity include immunity from crimes as severe as rape and murder, should that employer engage in abuse, there is almost no means to hold him, or her, accountable. Only once has the U.S. government lifted immunity to prosecute a diplomat on criminal charges.
Over the years, I have spoken with countless women who are survivors of abuse. Some of the most haunting stories are from women who have survived human trafficking and ended up working under force, fraud, or coercion. One woman, Virginia Carazani, accompanied her employer, who worked for the World Bank, from Bolivia to the United States with a contract for two years of full-time work, including sick leave, health insurance, meals, and lodging. Once she arrived in Washington, her employer took her passport so she would be unable to leave, told her she would not be paid as promised, and did not provide her with health insurance. In another case, a 14-year-old girl was recruited in Sudan to work for embassy officials in Washington, who then confiscated her passport, forced her to work seven days a week for $3–$6 per day, and threatened her with kidnapping or arrest if she left. Women like her, who have brought legal cases forward, have the power to inform anti-trafficking laws so that others do not have to go through the same experiences.
Washington is home to the country’s most powerful people—men, largely, responsible for running the federal government, including the president. Every day, they make decisions that affect millions of people, including the women who clean their homes and care for their loved ones.
What happens in Washington has a cultural and material impact on the entire nation. When human trafficking is occurring in the same place where our laws are being written, it normalizes violations of human rights and sets the tone for what is acceptable across the country. When our highest elected official has been accused of sexual harassment, misconduct, and assault, it reinforces a regime of power that is above the law, our values, and basic humanity. These abuses reach far beyond the capital to include every low-wage, vulnerable worker, across the gender spectrum, who is afraid to speak up. They send a message to every person with perceived or actual power that their actions will remain unanswered.
Washington has been a focal point for abuse, but it can be one for change, too. Women like Virginia Carazani, who survived abuse from diplomats and elected officials, have for years been speaking out about what it will take to develop the conditions for domestic workers to live and labor free from harassment and assault. Such advocacy has been crucial, but it isn’t enough. The current moment is an opportunity to reset expectations emphatically for those who hold power, and for them to reset expectations in their areas of influence as well. Americans have to ask of anyone who chooses leadership as their profession not only that they adhere to appropriate standards in their behavior, but that they model and cultivate those standards.
In 1996, the head of a small government agency called the Commodity Futures Trading Commission was a woman named Brooksley Born. She was the first female president of the Stanford Law Review and had carved out a successful career in financial securities law. There weren’t many women in government then: The president who appointed Born, Bill Clinton, had given just over a quarter of the Senate-confirmed positions in his administration to women, which was the highest proportion up to then.
When Born began her work, she became alarmed at the rapid growth and lack of transparency in the financial market for a complicated, relatively unheard-of product called over-the-counter derivatives. She wanted to better monitor them, and it was the kind of regulation her agency had the authority to do. But when Born started to push for new rules, a quartet of powerful economists—Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan, and Arthur Levitt, all of whom were in charge of much more powerful entities—dismissed her concerns. Levitt didn’t know Born, but he did know the other three men, who helped shape Levitt’s opinion of her. “I was told that she was irascible, difficult, stubborn, unreasonable,” Levitt said in a Frontline documentary in 2009.
When Born tried to regulate the market anyway—she and her agency had the authority to do so without their approval—their attacks on her went public. “The powers that be in Washington put out the word to the media and they put out the word to Capitol Hill that her views were not to be trusted, they were not to be taken seriously, that she was running a Podunk agency, that this was a power grab, and she didn’t have a clear understanding of the products that she was going to regulate and shouldn’t be entrusted with that kind of power, and it would be a great mistake if she were,” said Timothy O’Brien, who was a reporter for The New York Times, on the same program. They took their fight to Congress, which did have the power to stop her, and in hearing after hearing they declared her moves useless and possibly harmful. “Regulation that serves no useful purpose hinders the efficiency of markets to enlarge,” said Greenspan, the longtime chairman of the Federal Reserve, during one of the hearings.
Their campaign worked. Most of the media ignored the derivatives story, Congress stopped Born, and she resigned from her post. By late 2008, however, her worries were proved right. Derivatives were a huge driver of the subprime mortgage market, instruments that helped lead to the housing crash, which in turn led to the Great Recession. The men who stopped her were wrong.
Finance and economics are both male-dominated fields that have an enormous effect on the kinds of laws and policies made in Washington, D.C., which ripple out and shape all of our lives. As Heather Boushey writes in this forum, Alice Wu’s study of a popular jobs site revealed that economists often discussed their female colleagues in crude, sexualized ways. Other economists have published papers detailing how women need to be better writers than their male colleagues, and how few women make it to tenure-track academic positions. These trends are of a piece. Women are sexualized and objectified, and their male colleagues take them less seriously at work. They have to work harder to advance. No wonder so many women drop out or choose not to pursue careers in male-dominated fields such as economics or finance.
And if they do, they’ll still be dismissed. Born wasn’t the only female expert in finance and economics to worry about what was happening, unchecked, in the financial markets in the boom years of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Sheila Bair, as George W. Bush’s head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, saw in 2006 the mortgage crash was coming and was similarly rebuffed. Elizabeth Warren had spent a career documenting the ways in which middle-class families were in over their heads. Yet they were unable to help us avert the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Discrimination against women in the workplace leads to a shortage of women making decisions, and that reverberates through the economy, government, and policy circles. The current reckoning with sexual harassment and discrimination shows that ignoring women’s perspectives and expertise is harmful to everyone, and isn’t just about who touches whom on what body part.
It was November 1994, and I was seated in the office of Kaye Savage, a Washington civil servant, watching as the fax machine slowly printed out a written statement filled with lies that might cost me my career. Kaye was a key source for Strange Justice, a new book on the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation battle that I had co-authored with Jane Mayer, my colleague at The Wall Street Journal. The Journal, whose editorial page had championed Thomas and relentlessly attacked Anita Hill, had rather amazingly published excerpts from the book, including details from Savage about Thomas’s keen interest in pornography, a critical aspect of Hill’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexual harassment she experienced while working for Thomas.
When Strange Justice came out, Thomas’s supporters hastily tried to discredit it. David Brock, then a conservative author who had blasted Hill, describing her, in a 1992 article for the American Spectator, as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty,” had gotten hold of the details of Savage’s messy divorce and child custody case. Brock told Savage that if she did not publicly recant what she said in Strange Justice, he would release damaging personal details from the litigation. In a recent interview, Brock told me he assumed Thomas had arranged to have the damaging personal information about Savage leaked to him. (Thomas declined to respond to requests for comment.)
Tipped by another source to Brock’s blackmail plan, I literally ran from the Journal to Savage’s office. The written statement claimed that Jane and I had misrepresented her account. If she signed it, the credibility of the book would be destroyed, and the Journal would probably fire us both. Savage was almost in tears, worried that the information Brock had on her could ruin her life. I made the only appeal I could: Kaye owed it to history to stand by the truth, as Hill had done, despite the consequences. Before I left, she threw the statement into the garbage, giving me the answer I hoped for and lifelong admiration for her.
When the Hill-Thomas hearings ended, everyone who mattered in Washington said the truth would never be known. It was a case of he said, she said. Jane and I spent three years reporting and unearthing new information that shattered this silly myth, which was just Washington’s way of avoiding painful truths, like the fact that a sitting Supreme Court judge had perjured himself.
Washington is still a town that avoids painful truths. The recent deluge of sexual misconduct revelations has swept away powerful Washington figures like John Conyers, Al Franken, Trent Franks, Blake Farenthold, and others, in ways that clearly weren’t possible during the Hill-Thomas hearings. Big names in D.C. journalism have fallen, too. Leon Wieseltier. Mark Halperin. Michael Oreskes. These are men I knew and admired. I assumed they were feminists. Oreskes hired me in the 1990s in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. He championed my career and those of other strong women. I’m still trying to figure out what happened.
There were a lot of great women reporters back then working for powerful male editors. That hasn’t changed. I became the first woman at The New York Times to be Washington bureau chief, managing editor, and executive editor. During the short two and a half years that I ran the newsroom, half the masthead—the most powerful editors—were for the first time female. But that sort of progress seems to have subsided. According to the Nieman Report, as of 2014, women led fewer major U.S. newspapers than they did ten years earlier.
Back in 1991, Maureen Dowd sat across from me at the press table when Anita Hill introduced America to phrases like “Long Dong Silver” and “Who put pubic hair on my Coke?”—topics neither of us expected to hear about in the rococo setting of the Senate Caucus Room. Our eyes locked in disbelief, and a friendship was born. Unlike the rest of us, who simply reported who said what, trying to be evenhanded, Maureen saw in real time the big story unfolding: how ill-equipped and cowed the white men in power were to conduct a hearing into sexual harassment and the treatment of women in the workplace. She wrote with moral authority instead of bland balance. She also did a lot to help change the culture for women.
Six years later, I ran into her at a Washington book party. The Times had hired a new bureau chief, Oreskes. Did I know any good women he might hire? I gave her my best, “What am I, chopped liver?” look. A few years later, I succeeded Oreskes as the bureau chief, and Maureen hired one young woman assistant and then another. She trained them to report, and I eventually hired them both onto the full-time staff. One of them, Ashley Parker, who covered the Trump campaign for the Times, is now on the White House beat for The Washington Post. Jane Mayer produces some of the highest-impact investigations of Trump’s Washington for The New Yorker. That’s real progress.
I’ve found myself thinking a lot about what has changed over the years and what has not. With the determination for “zero tolerance” on matters of sexual misconduct, and with so many women running for public office in 2018 and, one hopes, in 2020, I desperately want to believe we are on the cusp of a new era.