Just a few hours after Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) went public with accounts of sexual harassment from her fellow lawmakers, a cadre of mostly male reporters took to the airwaves and Internet to question her credibility.
Politico’s senior congressional reporter, John Bresnahan, posted “I challenge this story. I don’t believe it” on Twitter in response to Gillibrand’s interview. Bresnehan later deleted the tweet and called it “moronic.”
Other reporters, including the New York Times’ Nick Confessore and Politico’s Alex Burns, have gone after Gillibrand for telling the truth, but not the whole truth.
“Shouldn’t Gillbrand name these Senate guys who fat-shamed her? Doesn’t she kind of have a responsibility to name them?” Confessore tweeted.
On the Today Show Thursday morning, co-host Tamron Hall echoed this sentiment, asking, “Should she name names? You put it out there, you make people speculate and try to narrow it down. Should she call them out?”
Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted his own theory, asking: “Is Kirsten Gillibrand only hiding the identities of the male senators who sexually harassed her because they are Democrats?”
GOP consultant Rick Wilson jumped on the same bandwagon, posting: “I suspect if the offending party in the Gillibrand story was a Republican, we’d know it by now.”
But Fatima Goss Graves, the vice president for Education and Employment at the National Women’s Law Center said there are many reasons someone may choose not to publicly accuse her coworkers of harassment—whether they work in a bar or the US Senate.
“There’s a lot at stake for men and women who come forward to talk about a hostile environment and workplace harassment,” she told ThinkProgress. “Retaliation is very real, and it could come in the form of losing your job altogether or your boss making life your life terrible by controlling which job assignments you get, and whether you get a promotion or the pay you deserve. It could even take the form of additional sexual harassment. That’s why some people don’t want to pay the price for speaking out.”
Graves said the case law shows harassment happening across all sorts of occupations—including the high-wage banking and law sectors. But the majority happen in low-wage workplaces like the restaurant and agricultural industries, where workers have the fewest protections and can least afford to lose their job.
With a problem so rampant, Graves said Gillibrand’s comments are important even if she just names the problem, not the perpetrator.
“It can make a real difference not only in the way Congress functions, but also how other people in other workplaces see themselves,” she said. “It can help them recognize that the conduct they’re experiencing is not isolated and there are things they can do about it.”
In fact, other high profile women who work on Capitol Hill say it’s not isolated at all. CNN’s chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash disclosed Thursday that lawmakers have also made inappropriate comments about her body. “I got some comments that would maybe just blow you away from male senators,” she said.
Over on NBC, Andrea Mitchell added: “We all had our stories of whom you’d not get in an elevator with and whom you’d protect your young female interns from.”
Graves emphasized that anyone who reports harassment and then faces retaliation can file charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or their state’s Fair Employment Agency.
How the comments and Gillibrand’s soon-to-be releases memoir will affect life on Capitol Hill remains to be seen. But the highest ranking woman in the US Congress says she supports Gillibrand for “shining a light” on the issue.
On a conference call with reporters on Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the treatment Gillibrand reported “appalling,” “absolutely ridiculous” and “disrespectful.”
But she emphasized that the decision whether to name the offending lawmakers is up to Gillibrand, saying of the harassers: “They know who they are.”
The progressive advocacy group CREDO created an online petition Thursday, that placed demands and pressure not on Gillibrand, but on the many men on Capitol Hill: “Every male member of Congress has a role to play. Those who make sexually harassing comments must stop. And the men who witness sexist comments — either in the presence of women or in the many all-male gatherings they find themselves in on Capitol Hill — must speak out.”