On Wednesday, a small group of senior Democratic Senate aides met to discuss strategy as hearings into the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh devolved into politicized chaos over decades-old sexual assault allegations.
Partway through the meeting, someone asked whether Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor in California who has accused Mr. Kavanaugh of attempted rape at a high school party, was planning to testify.
According to two sources who were present, an aide began describing the retaliatory threats Dr. Blasey has experienced since coming out publicly. "She's a real person," the aide said. Then she started weeping - and other women in the room choked up as well, in a long moment of charged silence.
Despite what the country thinks of Congress, Senate staff members are also real people. (I know, I'm married to someone who used to be one; none of his direct co-workers are quoted in this story.) They walk marble halls conferring with senators, their bosses.
They try to make sure that if someone does have to ask a woman under oath about the defining trauma of her life, it is at least done with some sensitivity. That hearing everyone spent the week fighting over? They'll have to fill the water glasses and print out the name cards.And female Senate aides must also process a nation's sexual trauma after a year spent making sense of their own.
For many women, the past year of #MeToo has been a time of intense and often private reflection. Women in the Senate, long a male-dominated backroom-cigar sort of place, have suffered their share of professional reckonings: Although the climate is slowly improving, only 23 senators are women, and the body only recently, and with considerable delay, created a modernized sexual harassment policy.
But the workplace culture of the Senate isn't important just on an individual level. As the Kavanaugh hearings bring #MeToo to its most public and political height so far, female Senate aides are both responsible for the outcome of the process and enduring its brutal, and extremely personal, fallout.
Last week, I spoke with a number of female midlevel and senior Senate staff members on both sides of the aisle. Nearly all described the Kavanaugh hearings as uniquely wrenching.
It's not as though these women are surprised by the intensity of the debate. Some of them have worked on the Hill for decades, experiencing the Anita Hill hearings as well as the 1995 resignation of Senator Bob Packwood after charges of sexual harassment. Looking back at that period, a senior Democratic aide said: "I think, how did we live through that? We were so angry."
(She, as well as most other sources in this article, spoke on background to discuss private reactions.) But there was an institutional acceptance of harassment at the time - everyone knew you didn't get in the Senate elevator alone with Strom Thurmond - and anger was mixed with fear.
"Women were intimidated and weren't comfortable coming forward," said Maura Keefe, Senator Jeanne Shaheen's chief of staff, who has worked in the Senate since the early 1990s.
Over the years, several of the women I spoke with experienced off-color comments, uncomfortable jokes or the standard everyday gut-punch of men talking over them in meetings. They, like women everywhere, always, learned well how to paste on a frozen smile or deflect an ugly comment with humor.
A senior aide to a Republican senator described a conversation about one of the recent sexual assault scandals, in which her boss said he couldn't believe people close to the alleged perpetrator hadn't known what kind of man he was. The aide shrugged and responded with a non-answer.
But privately, she thought, "You have no idea what kind of men work for you," having fielded constant "pornographic" remarks from her male co-workers.
The past year has brought some validation to female Senate aides. "We never thought there would be any kind of accountability, so to see it happening feels like you can finally exhale," Ms. Keefe said, speaking about the general #MeToo movement. But the scrambling over Judge Kavanaugh has reawakened old traumas while creating some new ones.
It's not just the daily stress of filtering, as one aide described them to me, the "horrible" calls to Senate offices, including threats of rape against the young women answering the phones. For Democratic women, there's also a simmering outrage over Republican treatment of Dr. Blasey.
Many of the women I spoke with identify closely with Dr. Blasey and her slow and unwilling creep into public view. "It's painful to me to watch this be about a political process and not about her life," a Judiciary Committee aide said. An aide to a Democratic senator on the Judiciary Committee said, "When I saw Senator Hatch say that Dr. Ford was 'mixed up,' my stomach just sank and I thought, the male senators have not advanced one iota in the past 27 years."
As Republicans on the Judiciary Committee - 11 men - consider ways to avoid repeating the optics of the Anita Hill hearings, like pulling in female aides and possibly a female senator to question Dr. Blasey, staff members are appalled. "They always have to bring a woman in to save their bacon," a Democratic aide said. "I don't know why these women always cover up for them."
Republican staff members, meanwhile, reported feeling angry that Democrats have co-opted the #MeToo movement to advance what they believe is a politicized agenda with little to do with actual victims.
"The whole thing is a little frustrating for me," said a senior aide to a Republican Judiciary Committee member, describing her sense of being torn between an instinct to believe women and also a conviction that the politics of #MeToo are being used as a weapon.
Although female aides have historically banded together in mutual support, putting gender above politics, several women told me that camaraderie is currently strained to nonexistent. Democratic women also described a new disgust with Republican male colleagues and a renewed urgency to bring more women into leadership roles.
The Senate is "not normal - it's not a normal place," a longtime aide said. For women existing in this non-normal place, this is a particularly abnormal moment. And their ability to navigate it will affect all of our livesfor decades to come.
Thw writer is a contributing editor
at Washingtonian magazine.
Leave Your Comments