I was very young when I told my boss that a colleague had showed me a video of himself in his underwear at my desk, how he called my cellphone late at night drunk, and how he turned up at my front door one night. When he asked me to meet his parents, I told her, enough is enough.
My boss groaned. That’s bad, she agreed. Then she told me how to handle it: “You can’t just reject him like a normal man,” she warned. “Just stop by his house for one round of drinks with the parents.”
It was a punch to the gut. The woman I saw as a role model, an advocate, and, frankly, a feminist encouraged me to accommodate him, instead of telling him to back off. My colleague’s behavior was an annoyance. My boss’s behavior was a betrayal.
Nancy Pelosi just did the same thing on national television to millions of women.
In an interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press Sunday, Pelosi declared a “zero-tolerance” policy on sexual harassment. Then she stood by Michigan Rep. John Conyers — a powerful Democrat who, it was recently reported, quietly settled a wrongful dismissal case in 2015 when a woman on his staff said she was fired for refusing his repeated sexual advances. Conyers maintains his innocence.
Pelosi could have rattled off a set of meaningless prepared sentences to fill air and buy her party time to figure out what to do. She did telegraph repeatedly in the interview that she expected Conyers to “do the right thing.” Shortly after the interview aired, Conyers announced he would step down from his powerful position as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee — a decision that would be very difficult if not impossible to reverse. Losing such a key position is a bad sign for anyone who hopes Conyers will survive in the House.
Pelosi has, in the past, worked to push out members involved in inappropriate behavior. But in public, on a popular Sunday show, she ran through a list of excuses for Conyers that are the very reasons women are afraid to come forward and report sexual harassment in the first place:
Conyers is the credible one. He is an “icon,” she told Todd. The woman? “I do not know who they are. Do you?” she asked the host. “They have not really come forward.” (The woman came forward three years ago, dogging her case through an opaque process in Congress that bars her from speaking about it. She spoke to BuzzFeed anonymously.)
Conyers is the real victim. Pelosi is withholding judgment until Conyers gets “due process,” she said. But Conyers got something better than due process. Congress wrote the rules for how sexual harassment claims are handled, exempting members from requirements that most other employers must follow. The woman, meanwhile, got less. She didn’t have a right to free lawyer. She couldn’t speak about her case. And it took months. Then she couldn’t find a job on the Hill. “I was basically blackballed,” she told BuzzFeed. “There was nowhere I could go.”
Conyers is a good man. “He understands what is at stake here and he’ll do the right thing,” Pelosi said, explaining how he’s going to think about what he’s done. He’s the top Democrat on the committee that will be responsible for possible sexual harassment legislation coming soon. “A good deal of that would be done by the Judiciary Committee. And I know that John would take that into consideration.” The woman, meanwhile, first raised her complaints three years ago. Will she get to explain what’s at stake for herself?
Conyers cares about women. “He’s done a great deal to protect women,” Pelosi said, pointing out he worked on the Violence Against Women Act. How, she implied, could he have hurt a woman who works for him?
Conyers’ behavior isn’t so bad. “Was it one accusation? Was it two?” Pelosi said when talking through how she is considering Conyers’s case. In an age of serial predators, maybe one woman’s story shouldn’t count.
Pelosi released a statement after the interview, cleaning up what she said and sounding much more supportive of women who make claims of harassment: “As a woman and mother of four daughters, I particularly take any accusation of sexual harassment very seriously. Any credible accusation must be reviewed by the Ethics Committee expeditiously. We are at a watershed moment on this issue, and no matter how great an individual’s legacy, it is not a license for harassment. I commend the brave women coming forward.”
Congress is also considering some reforms to the process by which people can report sexual harassment against its members, specifically the rules that keep the cases under wraps. Two weeks ago, five current and former female members of Congress came forward with their experiences of sexual harassment on the Hill, and Pelosi vocally backed proposed changes to make the system more transparent. She still supports them, she says.
But with one powerful man’s job on the line, she seemed to stand just as firmly by his side, at least for now. Conyers is 88, and his seat is in a safely Democratic district. There’s not much power for Pelosi to lose if she were to work to oust him. The decision to frame the interview as she did feels off given the current cultural moment.
In the past year, millions of women across the globe have taken to the streets to denounce Donald Trump’s policies and treatment of women; a viral social media hashtag, #MeToo, has emboldened women to share their stories of harassment and assault without shame, and women are standing up at great personal risk to name perpetrators of sexual harassment. They’re demanding to be heard.
Will the first female speaker of the House hear them? Will she listen to one woman who spoke up?
Last year, Pelosi joked about a flap between Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton, repeating Albright’s famous line: “There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women.”
Whatever happens next, today Pelosi is that woman.