The rush of stories in the news in recent weeks about sexual harassment in high places has reminded me of the regular phone calls I used to receive from my mother.
For 12 years, she worked as a legislative aide at the State Capitol in St. Paul and she experienced firsthand the lonely feeling of a woman subjected to abuse and harassment by a powerful man.
Usually, she would call me in tears, angry at times, but mostly just frustrated by the powerless nature of her position. While most state employees have the protection of employee unions, that’s not the case for most legislative staff in St. Paul, who work at the pleasure, or more likely the whim, of the lawmakers they serve. In my mother’s experience most legislators treated their aides respectfully, but some found the imbalance of power a license to harass or intimidate — and that became a regular part of her work experience at the Legislature.
She would call after a particularly rough day, of propositions or of being grabbed or groped in the lawmaker’s office. Once, she called after the lawmaker had ripped her blouse open, right in front of another staffer and several of the legislator’s own constituents. My mother was mortified.
She was tempted to quit many times, but a divorced woman in her late 50s or early 60s had few, if any, better options than a job in state government. And besides, she found the work, in most cases, incredibly fulfilling. She had started out in political work as an aide to Bloomington Mayor Kurt Laughinghouse, a deeply honorable and decent man, and found she had a knack for constituent service. When Laughinghouse later lost re-election, her work for the city came to an end.
But she quickly landed a new job at the Capitol, working with a DFL senator who had been a friend for years. She couldn’t have been more excited. She remembers feeling so lucky to have the opportunity to work in the state’s most beautiful building and to make a meaningful contribution.
For the first few years, all was well, until she transferred into the office of a different DFL senator. That’s when the harassment and abuse began.
Why didn’t she speak up at the time?
That’s the question that seems to arise whenever a woman tells of her experiences with sexual harassment or assault. Why would a woman wait, often for years, before telling her story?
The reasons are complex and multi-faceted, but hardly difficult to understand. For my mother, the penalty for speaking out would have been high, and she knew it.
She had seen another Senate staffer speak out about ethical violations by a former Senate leader and saw how the female staffer was quickly shipped from an influential position in the leader’s office to the Capitol basement where she spent her days clipping stories from newspapers around the state. She was shunned by virtually everyone, (my mother was one of the few who would still talk to her) as if she was the one who had committed the impropriety. Rumors soon circulated about the staffer’s mental health, most likely intended to undermine her credibility and further isolate her from other members of the Senate staff. My mother envisioned such a future for herself, and just couldn’t face it.
She talked one day to a member of the Legislature’s human resources staff, but was told she had few, if any, protections, and almost certainly wouldn’t have the backing of any other legislative staff, even those who were witness to the harassment and abuse. Everyone involved understood what was on the line. She was told that the elected members were the only ones who mattered. She was expendable and if she couldn’t take it, the alternative was finding another job.
There were other factors as well. The lawmaker who abused my mother was a married man. My mother had met his wife a number of times and liked her very much. The prospect of causing her the pain of a public accusation over her husband’s improprieties was just one more reason my mother vowed to stay silent. And it’s one more reason that I’m not naming the former lawmaker, since he and his wife are still living today. I’d be happy to name him. More than once over the years, I was tempted to drive down to the Capitol with a baseball bat and beat him bloody. My mother talked me out of it and she wouldn’t let me mention his name, even though it’s been nearly 20 years since she was forced to “retire.”
The end was near when one day another female staffer came into the senator’s office to find my mother crying. When she asked what was wrong, my mother told her of her predicament. The next day, the same staffer approached my mother and told her she had talked with her husband, who encouraged her to get a lawyer. That was the last my mother ever saw of that staffer, who apparently lost her job as well for suggesting my mother take legal steps to defend herself. Shortly after that staffer was let go, my mother’s senator came into the office and told my mother she was fired. He gave her two more months to wrap up her work, and turn 65, and then she was out the door. Anyone familiar with my mother, who at age 82 still has the tireless energy of a 30-year-old, knows that leaving the Capitol wasn’t her choice. She lost her dream job because her abuser feared she might talk after all.
Sadly, my mother’s experience would probably best be described as unexceptional. While I would like to think that such abuse is less routine today than it was 20 years ago, it still affects far too many women who lack the ability to fight back against abusers with the ability to overturn their lives on a whim. Staffers at the Legislature still have no protections, despite state rules that supposedly prohibit such activity.
For many, including my mother, such abuses leave them feeling a sense of guilt or shame, that somehow they were encouraging such behavior. It’s that classic conundrum for professional women, who are expected to look nice and be friendly in the workplace while, at the same time, not provoking the men to act out. It’s an interpersonal balancing act, and double standard, that puts women at a distinct disadvantage.
Despite the passage of nearly 20 years, it’s still difficult for my mother to talk about her time at the Legislature. It should have been a wonderful and fulfilling experience, one that she could have easily enjoyed and benefitted financially from for at least another five years. It should have been a job she could look back on today with enormous pride and satisfaction. Instead, it just makes her skin crawl.
Marshall Helmberger is the publisher of The Timberjay newspapers (including the Ely Timberjay, Tower-Soudan Timberjay and Cook-Orr Timberjay), where this commentary originally appeared. It is republished with permission.
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