clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Female senators took down Al Franken

This is why we need more women in office.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) was among a handful of female senators who urged Sen. Al Franken to resign.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

As more and more women came forward to accuse Sen. Al Franken of sexual misconduct, top Senate leaders — all men — stayed quiet. It was not until a group of female senators stood up and said, “Enough,” that the tide turned.

"The allegations against Sen. Franken describe behavior that cannot be tolerated," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) tweeted. Within minutes, five other Democratic female senators posted messages urging him to step down.

It was a coordinated effort, sparked by a Politico report published that morning, which described new sexual harassment allegations against Franken by a seventh woman.

About half of the 21 women in the Senate posted messages on social media urging Franken to resign (13 were Democrats, one was a Republican). Soon after, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell joined. By the end of the day, as male colleagues joined the effort, the tally hit 32 senators calling for Franken’s resignation.

On Thursday morning, Franken announced he would step down.

When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, research shows that diverse offices with more women decrease chances of harassment. The campaign Wednesday is a powerful reminder that women in Congress make a difference too. The United States still has a long way to go to give women an equal voice in politics, but this week gave women another reason to remember why it needs to happen.

It looked like Franken might survive

It might seem like a foregone conclusion now that a sitting senator facing accusations of sexual misconduct from eight women would have to give up his seat. But for almost a month, it looked like Franken would survive. Three weeks had passed since talk-radio host Leeann Tweeden first accused the Minnesota Democrat of badgering her and appearing to grope her in a photo.

Even as they agreed to launch an ethics investigation, Senate Democratic leaders stayed largely silent as each new allegation surfaced. Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate's top-ranking Democrat, repeatedly refused to comment. His silence sent a message: Party politics is more important than taking a strong stand against sexual harassment.

Even on Wednesday, when dozens of his colleagues were signing on to the call for Franken’s ouster, Schumer didn’t make a statement.

Women in the Senate led the charge against Franken

Gillibrand kicked off the campaign Wednesday morning. According to CNN, women in the Senate had been weighing how to respond to the growing number of accusations against Franken. When a seventh woman — a congressional aide — came forward, describing Franken's attempts to kiss her in 2006, they decided to speak up.

"Their patience had worn incredibly thin," a congressional aide told CNN.

So Gillibrand posted her message on Twitter, followed by similar messages from Sens. Claire McCaskill (MO), Maggie Hassan (NH), Mazie Hirono (HI), Patty Murray (WA), and Kamala Harris (CA).

Their calls spurred several male colleagues to do the same. By the end of the day, about 32 Democratic senators had asked Franken to resign.

What has changed since the Anita Hill hearing

Thirty years ago, Franken likely would never have felt pressured to resign over similar accusations of sexual harassment, even if eight women still had come forward. Women held only two out of 100 seats in the Senate back in 1987, and only 24 out of 435 House seats. (Today, there are 21 women in the Senate and 84 in the House — far from parity, but much improved over the numbers back then.)

Female lawmakers were hardly in a position to make powerful demands in such small numbers.

The impact of that gender imbalance became clear in 1991, when Anita Hill testified before the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee. For three days, she described in detail how Clarence Thomas, nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court, allegedly harassed her for years as her supervisor at the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (The EEOC is charged with investigating complaints about sexual harassment as a form of workplace discrimination.)

Senators on the panel responded in disbelief. They suggested that Hill was, as writer David Brock would later describe her, “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Sen. John Danforth suggested Hill might have “erotomania” — a delusion that a powerful person is in love with someone.

Others blamed her for not speaking up earlier. “How could you allow this kind of reprehensible behavior to go on without doing something about it?" asked Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania who later switched parties.

The Senate voted 52 to 48 to confirm Thomas to the Supreme Court.

Hill’s testimony — which was broadcast across the country — marked a turning point for women in politics. A record number of women ran for Congress the next year, pushing up the number of women in the Senate from four to six, and the number of women in the House from 28 to 47.

“I would not be a United States Senator today if it weren’t for the courage of Anita Hill,” Sen. Barbara Boxer told HuffPost last year.

Today, women make up about 20 percent of the Senate and the House chambers. That's far from equal representation, and the United States still ranks way below most countries on this measure. But the growing number of women on Capitol Hill has reached a tipping point, allowing them to shift the way Congress — and therefore the country as a whole — responds to sexual harassment.

Female lawmakers change society's perception of women

The impact of women in Congress goes far beyond their role in addressing sexual harassment.

Research shows that female members of Congress are more likely than men to co-sponsor bills related to women's health, regardless of their political party. They also change how society thinks about women, and how girls view themselves.

My colleagues Soo Oh and Sarah Kliff explained how that works:

A political scientist at Notre Dame University has found that adolescent girls are more likely to indicate an interest in running for office during years when there is lots of media coverage of women in politics.

Another one of her studies looked at 23 developed countries with varied levels of women in government. It found that in the countries with more female legislators, young women were more likely to participate in politics and have political discussions, and that young women expressed a greater interest in becoming politically active in the future.

Or consider an influential 2012 study in the journal Science, which looked at what happened when India randomly assigned some political positions to women. In villages assigned to have female “pradhans” — essentially city council chiefs — parents became more aspirational in what they expected of their daughters.

In light of this research, it makes sense that women in Congress can also change social perceptions about how men — particularly those in positions of power — should treat women.

In recent weeks, female senators and representatives have introduced a bill that would require more transparency in the process of reporting sexual harassment claims against members of Congress, and another bill that would make it easier for workers to file sexual harassment lawsuits against employers.

It’s hard to imagine male lawmakers taking these actions on their own. There is little incentive for them to change a system that has allowed many to hide their abusive behavior for decades.