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Women changing the political culture

A portrait of Democratic Congressman from Michigan John

A portrait of Democratic Congressman from Michigan John Conyers in the House Judiciary Committee room. Calls for his resignation have increased in the last few days. Credit: Scalzo / EPA-AFE / Rex

It’s very tough to break a glass ceiling when you’re busy protecting your backside against groping hands.

Allegations of sexual harassment are swirling like autumn leaves around Congress, statehouses and, really, any place you find politicians in power. The culture has been unmasked — and Congress looks more like a bacchanal than a sober domain for public policy.

There seems to be a connection between the frat house culture and the lopsided lack of representation of women in American political life. We need more women in politics, not fewer, and these sexist escapades are one more way those in power build barriers to entry.

Because sexual harassment isn’t about attraction, it’s about power, and power is the currency of politics. According to the Congressional Office of Compliance, U.S. taxpayers spent $900,000 in fiscal 2017 to settle harassment and other workplace complaints.

The numbers are still paltry: Just 19.6 percent of Congress is female. Only six of 50 governors are women, and just 25 percent of state legislators.

We know how the efforts to elect a woman president, to date, have turned out. But there’s hope. Women, gathering strength in numbers from the #MeToo social media reckoning, are outing male politicians’ bad behavior.

On Thursday, the Senate Ethics Committee opened an inquiry into Sen. Al Franken, who has apologized for sexual misconduct allegations, including at least one case after his election.

And accusations against Rep. John Conyers — as well as stinging criticism by Rep. Kathleen Rice of Garden City, among a generation of female members of Congress pushing against the sexist culture in Washington — persuaded House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday to call for his resignation.

Women in Washington are pressuring Congress to finally and seriously deal with sexual harassment in that workplace. What’s more, women outside of Washington are also more interested in running for political office — perhaps exponentially growing their ranks in positions of power.

Some 22,000 women have reached out to Emily’s List about running for office next year, including in local and state races, the group told The Hill. A typical year’s traffic for the organization is about 900 women.

If these women run and win, will they change the culture of politics? That’s possible, but it will be difficult. It can be counterproductive to speak up about a colleague or a potential mentor. Gayle Goldin, a Rhode Island state senator, penned an op-ed for Glamour last week saying, “Politics is all about relationships. We aren’t just making friends at work; we’re building rapport to advance our legislative agenda.”

Political chumminess has routinely worked to dismiss women’s stories. Deanna Maher, who was an aide for Conyers in the 1990s and has accused him of harassment, told CNN she thought about reporting his alleged behavior for years, but she didn’t think she would be believed until the #MeToo wave. “These members protect each other,” she said.

Female politicians face hostility from online trolls, too, which seems intended to silence them and send them out of the public sphere. In a short video by the Women’s Media Center, a non-profit group that raises women’s visibility, several women politicians told about gender-based insults and threats of death or rape.

Such tirades are meant not only to intimidate women, but also to keep us silent. This isn’t something we can tolerate in our politics. Not in the past, and especially not now, just as more and more women are finding their political voices. It’s not enough just to find our voices, but to raise them, even when someone else doesn’t like it.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.