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Republican women care about sexual harassment, but their party isn’t listening

In the #MeToo era, some conservative women find themselves isolated.

Mona Charen, who spoke about sexual harassment in the Republican party at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February
Mona Charen, who spoke about sexual harassment in the Republican Party at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February.
Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images. Photoillustration: Javier Zarracina/Vox

“I’m disappointed in people on our side,” said Mona Charen. “For being hypocrites about sexual harassers and abusers of women who are in our party. Who are sitting in the White House. Who brag about their extramarital affairs. Who brag about mistreating women. And because he happens to have an R after his name, we look the other way, we don’t complain.”

Charen, a conservative writer, was speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. Her panel, “#UsToo: Left Out By the Left,” was supposed to be about “how conservative women can retake the leadership role with women across the country in a #MeToo environment,” as moderator Marji Ross put it. But Charen, when asked what got her “riled up” about contemporary feminism, took the opportunity to call out her fellow Republicans for supporting politicians accused of sexual harassment.

When she mentioned allegations against Roy Moore during his Alabama Senate candidacy, she was met with shouts of “not true!” from women in the audience. After the panel, she had to be escorted out by security guards, for her own protection.

Since then, however, Charen says she’s heard from many conservative women who are “thrilled” that she spoke up about sexual harassment.

“They, like liberal women, are so tired of being badly treated,” Charen told Vox. “They say, ‘I don’t know anybody that this hasn’t happened to.’”

For many Republican women, the issue of sexual misconduct knows no party. They’re frustrated with the support Roy Moore received after multiple women accused him of pursuing them when they were teenagers and with the fact that President Donald Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by 19 women and has yet to face consequences.

These women don’t always identify with the #MeToo movement, which they see as linked with liberal causes. Their own party, meanwhile, has shown little appetite for addressing the issue, and some are wary of speaking up about it for fear of being ostracized. That leaves Republican women who care about stopping harassment in a politically lonely position, and because of the realities of voter dynamics, that might not change anytime soon.

Many conservative women are concerned about sexual harassment in the workplace — but they don’t always feel represented by #MeToo

“I see zero daylight between liberal and conservative women on this,” said Lauren Leader-Chivée, co-founder of All In Together, a nonpartisan organization that offers leadership and civics education for women. Regardless of party, she said, female voters tend to agree on “the fundamental right of women to work free from harassment and abuse” — especially because high-profile abusers have come from both parties.

“Whether it’s John Conyers or Al Franken on the left or Roy Moore on the right, this issue is nonpartisan,” she said. “We’ve got equal opportunity discrimination happening.”

Indeed, women in conservative workplaces have long been speaking out against sexual harassment. Bill O’Reilly lost his job at Fox News just over a year ago, after the New York Times reported on multiple allegations of sexual harassment against him, several by conservative female commentators. The women who spoke out about O’Reilly joined Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly, and others who had reported sexual misconduct by Roger Ailes, leading to Ailes’s resignation as Fox News CEO in 2016. These reports — by conservative women, against conservative men — helped pave the way for coverage of the allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein, by keeping the issue of sexual harassment by powerful men in the public eye.

But since October, when Weinstein was fired from his production company and the current phase of the #MeToo movement began to gain steam, many of the men deposed have come from left-leaning media organizations or from Hollywood. And many of the women to speak out most vocally about harassment have been left-leaning — like Ashley Judd, one of the first women to speak on the record about Weinstein, who has also been a vocal critic of Trump.

“It’s hard for a lot of conservative or right-leaning women to see themselves in the movement, because there have been so few people from the right who have been carrying the baton,” said Jennifer Pierotti Lim, co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, an outgrowth of Republican Women for Hillary.

Some conservative women “feel a little ostracized” by the #MeToo movement, even if they support its goals, said Meghan Milloy, also a co-founder of Republican Women for Progress. She likened the movement to the Women’s March, where some women with anti-abortion views felt unwelcome after anti-abortion groups were removed as partners.

Charen also believes discomfort with the Women’s March has affected conservative women’s views on #MeToo. “Whenever there’s a question of women’s solidarity about a subject,” she said, “the issue of abortion tends to divide conservative and liberal women.”

“Whereas we probably have similar views about the whole #MeToo matter,” she added, “when conservative women are excluded because they’re pro-life, it leaves bitterness in its wake.”

Charen also sees a concern among conservative women about “going overboard, and overly defining what sexual assault and sexual harassment are.” She cited the case of a woman who said comedian Aziz Ansari tried to pressure her into sex as one that gave many conservative women pause.

Nationwide polling bears out some of these impressions. In a Vox/Morning Consult poll on #MeToo conducted in March, 22 percent of Republican women said they strongly supported the movement, compared with 55 percent of Democratic women. And 12 percent of Republican women said the movement represented their interests very well, compared with 37 percent of Democratic women. Republican respondents were also more likely to worry about men being falsely accused as a result of #MeToo, with 34 percent of Republican women saying they were very concerned about that possibility, compared with 22 percent of Democratic women.

Even if they don’t always identify with #MeToo, though, previous polling suggests Republican women do care about sexual harassment. A Pew survey conducted in November and December 2017 found that 69 percent of Republican women thought recent allegations of harassment and assault reflected widespread problems in society, compared with 74 percent of Democratic women and 54 percent of Republican men. Overall, 61 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning respondents said the issue of sexual harassment was very important, compared with 81 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners.

Republican women who care about harassment don’t have a lot of support from their party

If Republican women concerned about sexual misconduct don’t always feel at home in the #MeToo movement, they don’t necessarily feel at home in their party either.

“The Republican Party is mostly being driven by what Trump tweets,” said Lim.

While US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and some other Republican women have spoken up in support of women who have reported sexual misconduct, Lim said, “It’s very clear that the Republican Party isn’t decisively saying, ‘This is a powerful movement that is beneficial to all of us.’”

“I don’t think either party has done an especially good job dealing with this,” said Leader-Chivée. She noted that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi initially defended Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) after he was accused of sexual misconduct against former staffers.

Still, she said, “Roy Moore was an extraordinarily painful incident for a lot of conservative women.”

When misconduct allegations against Moore first became public, she noted, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Moore should drop out of his Alabama Senate race. But, she said, “once the president stepped forward and supported him, the RNC, you could argue, had no choice” but to fall in line.

“I think there are a lot of conservative women for whom that was just humiliating and appalling and a sacrifice of all the core values that they hold dear,” she said. Trump administration support for Rob Porter, the former White House staff secretary who was accused of abuse by his two ex-wives, was also deeply troubling for many Republican women, she said.

And, of course, there are the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against Trump himself. “The party has just been lacking the ability to acknowledge things since the Trump nomination,” said Milloy. “We’re just kind of blowing off the fact that there are so many accusations of sexual abuse in the White House.”

Milloy says conservative women working on Capitol Hill are increasingly recognizing that what they once brushed off as “creepy” behavior by their bosses is actually sexual harassment. “They may not realize it, but I do think that the #MeToo movement is to thank for that kind of recognition,” she said.

Some of those women are filing complaints, but the climate in the party has them worried about their futures.

“The biggest fear that I hear from women on the Hill that have reported things like this is the fear that they won’t be able to work in Republican politics again,” Milloy said. “The party is very cliquish right now, and I think word travels quickly. They’re nervous that if they come forward, they’re going to be labeled as this tattle-teller.”

The Republican Party may have little incentive to change

Leader-Chivée believes today’s Republican Party could face an exodus of female voters. “If the party cannot turn it around to supporting more conservative women candidates running, start demonstrating their commitment to women’s equality and women’s issues in a more vocal and visible way, they risk losing a huge majority of American women, even those who have been lifelong conservatives,” she said.

Others, however, see less of a risk for the party if it fails to acknowledge the problem of harassment.

“On most public opinion issues, Republican women look much more like Republican men than they do like Democratic women,” said Kathleen Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Even on the issue of sexual harassment, she said, “we still see in public opinion polls that Republican women and Democratic women are very different.”

Some recent polling, like the Pew survey, shows Republican women moving closer to Democratic women on the issue, she noted, but that may be at least in part a product of intense media coverage of sexual misconduct allegations.

“We don’t know if it’s really long-term movement, or if it’s just sort of a reaction to all of the attention that the subject is getting right now.”

Moreover, most vote choice comes down to “big-ticket items like the economy and jobs and maybe health care,” Dolan said. Other issues “really have a hard time working their way up the food chain to become a real important influence on people’s votes,” she explained. “At the end of the day, sexual harassment probably isn’t at the top of most people’s influence list.”

Come November, many Republican candidates may see little profit in addressing #MeToo directly. An exception will be those running in places where harassment in government has become a highly publicized issue, Dolan said. Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, for instance, has been criticized for her handling of sexual harassment allegations against a longtime friend and political supporter; the Republican governor will likely have to address the issue when she runs for a full term in November.

Charen, for her part, has seen no change in the Republican Party’s approach to harassment since she made her comments at CPAC in February. But she noted that Republicans also haven’t faced another new case on par with the allegations against Roy Moore. When that happens, she said, “that will be the test as to whether the party can find its voice.”

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