Last week, my experience, and that of some of my female co-workers, became the focus of a New York Times story on the sexual harassment and sexism that took place in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. I told my story to bring attention to the sexist environment that is unfortunately endemic to most workspaces, including political campaigns. However, I was disheartened to discover that the takeaway by many pundits was not that sexism and harassment is pervasive, but that Sanders was somehow uniquely culpable. I was also struck by some of the messages and tweets calling into question the character of the women who spoke out.
As was the case throughout the 2016 campaign season, my personal experiences as a woman of color were sublimated to serve an establishment media narrative that pretends the progressive movement is all white, all male, and runs counter to the interests of women and people of color.
But my story should not be taken to confirm the “Bernie bro” mythology. It should be taken to confirm the pervasiveness of sexism in professional life and distill the hard truths that all campaigns should learn from.
It’s not as if the Sanders campaign alone is nursing the last vestiges of sexism and sexual harassment in the political sphere. Both were reportedly features of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. During her first run at the White House, Clinton’s campaign chose to retain a senior adviser who reportedly harassed a young woman repeatedly rather than fire him. And just last month, an aide for Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., resigned after it was reported that he settled a sexual harassment lawsuit for $400,000.
Politics reflect society’s general problem with sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.
Politics reflect society’s general problem with sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. As a whole, our country does not believe, respect, or even like women as much as men. Our president has bragged about sexually assaulting women and made countless demeaning comments about their physical appearances. Two out of 9 Supreme Court justices have been accused of sexual misconduct. One in 3 women have experienced some form sexual violence. A nonprofit administered an online survey last January and found that 81 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. The numbers and stakes are even higher for women of color and transgender women.
It’s not surprising, then, that these systemic problems infect political campaigns — especially since those calling the shots are mostly male, white, and disconnected from the working class. In my experience, women hired as strategists or managers are frequently treated like assistants and translators. Men often pass off our ideas as their own and “put us in our place” if we are too assertive.
It’s the classic double-bind: We are not smart enough or too smart; not attractive enough or too attractive; not dressed appropriately or dressed too nicely; not poor enough or too poor; not confident enough or too arrogant; not likable or too female. To be a woman in politics is to be held to an unattainable standard of perfection. To be a woman of color is even harder. When we see women like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez overcome the odds against her, set these expectations on fire, and score impressive accomplishments like getting the media and Democratic leadership to take a Green New Deal seriously, we should rejoice. But even she’s not immune.
After the New York Times story, I was hoping to see a more productive discussion about the insidiousness of sexual harassment and sexism in politics. In sharing my experiences, I was hoping to highlight this issue for all future campaigns and celebrate the power of women organizers who worked together and successfully got the attention of Sanders and his team. But that’s not what happened.
For one, the corporate media unfairly focused on Sanders — casting the harassment that happened within his campaign much differently than similar cases with other campaigns — implicating his personal ethics in a way that they’ve declined to do with other politicians.
Sanders recently apologized and acknowledged that his 2016 campaign could have handled sexual harassment and sexism claims better, and in his 2018 re-election campaign, he reportedly instituted sharper protocols like better hiring, training, and designating an independent firm that staff could utilize to report sexism and harassment. But new allegations of sexual harassment in his 2016 campaign have since surfaced, indicating the depth of the problem was likely deeper than most knew. Now, Sanders should take the rare step of setting up an independent investigation into the 2016 allegations.
At the same time, I was deeply disappointed by the feedback I received from some on the left. Both myself and other women who spoke on the record about our experiences on Sanders’s campaign received messages and tweets from Sanders supporters accusing us of lying and wanting to purposefully attack the Vermont senator. I was told to “enjoy my 15 minutes of fame” and was mocked while the sexual harassment I endured was normalized. Neoliberals and corporate media are unfair to Sanders and his supporters because our movement threatens their supremacy. But to dismiss our claims as mere bias is at best disingenuous and at worst cruel.
By blindly attacking anyone who raises valid concerns about sexism because it’s “not a good look” for the senator, they are actually making him look worse. Ironically, in their defense of Sanders’s campaign, these individuals are behaving as if acknowledging the presence of sexism and sexual harassment in his campaign is akin to calling Sanders a sexist — the implication that the establishment media seems keen to draw.
Accusations of sexual misconduct during a political campaign should not be weaponized to serve a political agenda. Nor should claims be ignored to protect a beloved candidate — doing so only adds to the cycle of shame and punishment that makes sexism so hard to tackle.
Sexism will persist if women are discouraged from openly talking about our experiences. I sincerely hope that neither fear of political exploitation nor personal attacks discourage other women from speaking out against sexism or any abuse they’ve suffered.