Lately, as I’ve searched for words to describe what it is like to be a professional woman, especially in politics, I keep coming back to PBS Frontline’s documentary League of Denial on NFL football players who sustain lifelong, traumatic injury just for playing the game. One of the key pieces of science that contributed to a breakthrough in our understanding of traumatic brain injury suffered by players is that subconcussive hits can be as damaging to the brain as the bell-ringing, concussion-inducing tackles that first drew society’s attention.
In other words, what appear to be minor blows can be just as damaging as knock-out ones.
When I think back on my professional trajectory, I can’t stop replaying the moments of corrosive misogyny that have punctuated my career in journalism and, later, in media relations: from the sexually harassing, unwelcomed comments of male peers and superiors, to the discussions and rooms I was kept out of because I am a woman. These everyday hits can feel small compared to the knock-out punch of sexual assault and rape the world has been forced to confront in the #MeToo era, most recently in the case of Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh. But to me, and so many other women I know, the impact of everyday sexism is real. It is raw. And it has shaped who we are today.
Over a week ago, the chief of staff for prominent Chicago politician Toni Preckwinkle, for whom I once worked, was forced to resign because of alleged “inappropriate behavior,” which he did not deny. Two days later, Preckwinkle declared her candidacy for mayor and, as the current president of Cook County and head of the Democratic Party, is a presumptive favorite. I could never match the bravery of the woman or women who came forward to ensure her chief of staff would no longer have a job. To be clear, I never was physically violated or threatened at work or out of it. But this former chief of staff was dismissive and demeaning to me in ways I am sure other women would find familiar.
I’ve come to this place where I’ve accepted that sexism is a normal consideration in the workplace.
When I first arrived for an interview with him for the County job, I was left waiting for two hours only to be told he had no time to speak with me. When I accepted the position, it was on the condition I would be promoted to replace a retiring staff member. The promotion was delayed indefinitely with no explanation. When I voiced countervailing opinions to his, I was shut out of conversations I should have been in, watching him walk past my door to get to my male colleague’s office. And when I finally gave up and gave a full two-weeks notice, he confirmed receipt of my resignation letter to me, but told HR he never received it because he wanted me to stay longer; he thought that if he didn’t send along my resignation, I wouldn’t be able to leave.
To me, he was a run-of-the-mill sexist. But as I’ve seen the headlines and tweets about his resignation, I’ve grappled internally with how, in less than a decade of professional life, I’ve come to this place where I’ve accepted that sexism is a normal consideration in the workplace.
I left that government office relatively quietly because I didn’t think anyone would care about my experience. Instead of trying to fight the sexism I endured, I walked away, even though I knew I was good at my job, leaving the door open for another smart, capable woman to potentially be treated the way I was. It’s an embarrassing pattern I recognize in myself because I walked away from my journalism career in Washington D.C., too, in part, because I was tired of dealing with the kind of men in politics who live there.
I have wonderful memories of my time as a reporter in D.C., but I also have very specific, horrible ones. Almost all of which involve Democratic men.
I remember the countless men who would tell me, like it was no big deal, that I must be having sex to get stories (not like it was any of their business, but because these were the kind of men I encountered, I didn’t have sex for the first four years I lived in D.C.).
I remember the senior Democratic aide who told me he wanted to find me a boyfriend so I’d “stop being so obsessed” with his boss and that if I brought him nine of my male friends, he’d pick out “at least three” who wanted to “f—” me. This person worked on a presidential campaign in 2016 and I still see him on TV sometimes.
Another senior Democratic staffer didn’t want me to break a story, so he told me I couldn’t possibly have sources who knew what he knew, verbally demeaning me in a room full of people, and telling me that if I reported the article, my career would be over. He gave the story to a male competitor who covered it from an angle he preferred. I see him on TV, too.
There’s more, but it doesn’t matter. I reached a point where I honestly felt I was less because I was a woman. I was no longer willing to tolerate that feeling and I thought that if I didn’t leave D.C., I’d be trapped in it.
It’s okay to look at the #MeToo movement and feel as if you fit into the fight for equality, even if you’ve never been physically threatened.
I’m not writing to ask for sympathy. I’m writing to ask men to consider how the kinds of behaviors or comments they’ll likely never get fired for or possibly don’t even remember could impact a woman for a long time.
I’m writing to ask these men to question whether they use their publicly progressive views supporting women as cover to demean women when no one is looking.
And I’m writing to let women know that they are not alone. That it’s okay to look at the #MeToo movement and feel as if you fit into the fight for equality, even if you’ve never been physically threatened, to remember that what appear to be minor blows can be just as damaging as knock-out ones.
Many people see a record number of women running for public office in 2018, but what I can’t help seeing, too, is the void: the talented women who have quit politics or political journalism because of toxic men and the people who enable them. Women whose contributions could have made our government, politics, and media stronger had they stayed.