There’s a rich irony to last Monday’s announcement by Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., that she would not seek reelection in the face of revelations that she had averted her eyes from clear evidence of sexual harassment occurring in her own office. For during these past several months, Rep. Esty has been an outspoken supporter of #MeToo, an ad hoc movement that went viral last October in the wake of growing accusations – or revelations, if one will – of harassment against women. While “serves her right” might not be the right response to Esty’s pending departure, it would be difficult to deny she embodies a certain hypocrisy underlying much of political feminism.
The phrase “me too” is a classic expression of group conformity. It’s also the hottest hashtag in America, a war cry of women speaking out against a putative conspiracy of silence on the subject of male-on-female sexual harassment. The roots of #MeToo go back to 2006 when a feminist activist named Tarana Burke used the phrase to promote a social media campaign to raise the profile of the issue among “women of color.” The phrase entered our daily lexicon much more recently. On October 15, 2017 actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” The message was a catalyst for movement of women from a wide variety of backgrounds, especially in the context of the film industry where prominent actresses were coming out of the woodwork almost daily to accuse men with whom they had worked, especially producer Harvey Weinstein, of predatory behavior.
Congress was not immune to the siren call of #MeToo. Back in November, the Committee on House Administration held a hearing on sexual harassment in congressional offices. As a warmup, about 1,500 former Capitol Hill aides signed an open letter to House and Senate leaders to demand mandatory harassment training for new hires. Many derided what they saw as a code of silence. “If I go into my boss’s office and say, ‘Oh, this guy did this to me’ – I don’t want to lose my job,” remarked Alice Cain, a nonprofit employee and former aide to the late Illinois Senator, Paul Simon. Some female members of Congress have provided support. “The Congress of the United States should be the one work environment where people are treated with respect, where there isn’t a hostile work environment,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. “And frankly, it’s just the opposite. It’s probably among the worst.”
That’s the view of House colleague Elizabeth Esty. Now 58, Esty, a third-term Democrat from Connecticut, found herself in a quandary not long ago. Late last year she was among the prominent voices calling for then-Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., to resign amid allegations of habitual sexual misconduct with female staffers. Yet all the while she had a home-grown crisis. Various newspapers reported last month that back in 2016 a number of female employees in her office had complained about her chief of staff, Tony Baker – and with substantial details. Baker allegedly made aggressive sexual overtures and violent threats against them, in one case landing a punch in the back. One staffer, Anna Kain, obtained a protective order against Baker for stalking and making threats. This was no isolated case. And rather than be proactive, Esty waited two months before launching an in-house investigation. Moreover, she also kept him on her payroll for an additional month, providing severance pay and a job recommendation.
Rep. Esty’s female allies most of all were not pleased. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi issued this statement: “As Congresswoman Esty has acknowledged, her actions did not protect Ms. Kain and should have. Congresswoman Esty has now appropriately requested an expedited review by the Ethics Committee.” Back in Connecticut, former secretary of the state and now (as of last Tuesday) a candidate for governor, Susan Bysiewicz, registered her discontent: “I know Congresswoman Esty to be a woman of action rather than words, and in this case, words are not enough. I believe under the circumstances, Congresswoman Esty must step down from her position.” Democratic state senators Mae Flexer and Cathy Osten also called for Esty to resign, as did several state Republicans.
At first, Rep. Esty insisted on remaining in office, but eventually she gave in to pressure. On Monday, April 2, she announced that she would not seek reelection and, during remaining months in office, would work to improve workplace relations on Capitol Hill. In a contrite Facebook post, she addressed her constituents and especially Ms. Kain. “Too many women have been harmed by harassment in the workplace,” she wrote. “In the terrible situation in my office, I could have and should have done better. To the survivor, I want to express my strongest apology for letting you down.”
While it is gratifying that Rep. Esty, belatedly, did the right thing, there is a larger issue. The congresswoman is one of the leading voices demanding accountability in removing males from positions of authority who use those positions to extract sexual favors from female subordinates. It is odd that she was more concerned about news “spin” than moral consistency during the time she ran cover for Tony Baker. Had it been someone other congressman’s staffer, she likely would have demanded sanctions from the get-go. This whole episode appears to be a case of a reigning principle, especially among feminist activists: “Do as I say, not as I do.”