EDITORIAL: State Capitol Must Be A Place Safe For Women

EDITORIAL
American News, Aberdeen, S.D.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) From unwanted hugs to kisses on the cheek to being asked out or hit on and more, several women who work in South Dakota have come forward to describe their experiences dealing with sexual harassment at the state capitol in Pierre.

Aberdeen, S.D.

Unsafe.
Unacceptable.
Hyper-masculine.
Sexualized.
Dirty.
“What happens in Pierre, stays in Pierre.”

Those are words women recently used in a Sioux Falls Argus Leader report to describe the culture inside the state Capitol as they shared instance after instance of sexism within its marbled hallways.

The women came forward after actresses in Hollywood publicly accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, which shed a light on issues like sexual harassment and rape though the social media hashtag #MeToo.

Former state Sen. Angie Buhl O’Donnell and lobbyist Samantha Spawn were the first to share their stories about the Capitol.

In an Oct. 13 Facebook post, Buhl O’Donnell detailed an interaction with former House Majority Leader Brian Gosch.

She said he spoke about her breasts being targeted several times during a game of dodgeball. And, she wrote, later that night Gosch asked for a hug despite the two having hardly interacted before.

Buhl O’Donnell said she was caught off guard and felt put upon, so she uncomfortably obliged.

Spawn also shared her experience, posting on Facebook that a state employee raped her in March after a lobbyist event.

Spawn said there’s a culture of keeping quiet in Pierre, and she worried about losing respect or that her allegations would be discredited.

After all, from a very young age, girls are often told “boys will be boys.” And that’s exactly how several other longtime legislators and lobbyists described the atmosphere to the Argus Leader — as a “good old boys’ club.”

That newspaper interviewed 30 women who had previously worked at the Capitol. Half of them reported being a victim of or witness to harassment or inappropriate behavior by male colleagues.

Half.

The women’s stories ranged from unwanted hugs to kisses on the cheek to being asked out or hit on and more.

Tiffany Campbell, who lobbied in 2012, said a lawmaker asked if he could watch her pee at a bar frequented by the legislative crowd. When she reported the incident, she was told nothing could be done because it happened outside the Capitol.

Another former representative shared a story of seeing a lobbyist being pinned against a basement wall by a legislator.

Sadly, these reports weren’t the first from the Capitol. In January, then-Rep. Mathew Wollmann admitted to having had sex with two legislative interns.

His confession came a week after a proposed rule change prohibiting sexual contact between lawmakers and interns or pages was voted down. The rule was later adopted.

But shouldn’t the initial vote have been a red flag about the problems? How about other scandals in the past?

Harassment in the statehouse, Buhl O’Donnell said, is “about men abusing their power and using that to objectify women, and feeling like they have the ability to do so partly because no one is going to say anything.”

It’s clearly beyond time to change that mentality. No one should have power over another. And those who are objectified should not feel that their only choice is to keep quiet.

“As a woman, you have a tendency to tolerate more crap, tolerate more inappropriate comments to get things done. You feel like you just have to shut up,” former Rep. Peggy Gibson told the Argus Leader. “You’re scared to disclose because you may suffer the result.”

That mentality has to change as well. Women should not be conditioned to be OK with sexist comments and unwanted advances from men.

Rather than telling women that they should just expect to be sexually assaulted or harassed in their lives (a Harvard Graduate School of Education study published in May revealed that 87 percent of women ages 18 to 25 have sexually harassed), let’s teach them how to react to unwanted behavior. Let’s teach them what recourse to take if they are assaulted.

More importantly, however, men need to learn that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated any longer. That goes for men in power, and men in Pierre.

Never would we have previously considered comparing our citizen Legislature to Hollywood elites. But in this case, it seems appropriate.

Women have always been the minority gender in the Legislature. The majority male representation and remote location of the Capitol contribute the problem, Buhl O’Donnell said. While those are two things that can’t be changed, there is action that could help.

Given past problems, perhaps all state lawmakers should be required to complete awareness training and review the state’s sexual harassment policies. They should also be required to report and discourage any inappropriate interactions whether they are verbal or physical.

Legislators simply can’t wait to start setting an example or to make — and then follow — their own rules.

— American News Editorial Board

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