So now New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — who has made zero tolerance for sexual harassment the cornerstone of her heretofore successful career — is facing her own #MeToo moment. It comes with revelations in Politico that a young woman who worked for her resigned after she said the senator failed to take appropriation actions when a close aide allegedly made unwanted advances toward her. Gillibrand has defended her office’s response to the situation, saying that the aide, who has also served as the senator’s driver, was denied a promotion and given a final warning.
But Gillibrand — who has done admirable work plumbing sexual harassment and violence as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee — is in a difficult position here. She was instrumental in ousting former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, a Democratic colleague, after allegations of groping were revealed. Based on the Politico article, the aide’s behavior, while not physical, was at least as serious.
There are so many lessons here. First, every action has a reaction and, in some cases, an overreaction. If #MeToo has gone overboard, as some critics claim, that’s because for years no one did anything about the truly egregious behavior of men. Had men not acted like pigs, the borderline cases like Franken’s and Peter Martins’ at the New York City Ballet might’ve been met with more nuanced responses. So don’t blame women for this. Men created this world. And they created the situation that has damaged women and other men.
Secondly, It is virtually impossible to be a moral absolutist, and if you are going to be one you better make damn sure that your glasshouse is unbreakable. Gillibrand put herself in a no-win position by embracing zero tolerance and then thinking she didn’t have to apply it when it hit close to home. I get it. I totally get it. Good help is hard to find. A good man is hard to find. The aide in question is someone she has trusted with the keys to her home and with her children. And he did not violate that trust where she was concerned. Why upset what must be a carefully calibrated, highly pressured life? But that’s where zero tolerance must begin — with yourself and your inner circle..
Thirdly, the damage to Gillibrand’s presidential bid has been done. She says she’s the only one who can bring the country together, but she can’t keep her own office clean and she can’t get the New York Democratic delegation behind her, so how is she going to unite a country that includes those who would never vote for her? But Gillibrand’s problems — like the revelations of Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s alleged nitpicking vindictiveness toward her staff — speak of women’s inexperience in leadership roles. They also speak of that adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, regardless of gender. Women aren’t better than men. They’ve just had less opportunity to be bad.
Fourthly, fretting over a group of female senators’ presidential bids is a moot point, because none of these women has the charisma to defeat President Donald J. Trump. It’s going to take someone with a great wow factor, someone center-left who can appeal to the middle. If Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee, Trump will be reelected. The Dems are going to have to decide whether they want to stick with their idealism, their socialism and all their other isms or embrace a new-old one — the one Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did, pragmatism — to win.
Finally, there’s only one way to defeat sexual harassment — call it what it is the moment it happens. If someone hits on you or disparages someone or otherwise acts inappropriately, get up, denounce it in a loud voice that draws attention and walk away. Harassers count on the idea that no one likes inconvenience and confrontation, that everyone is afraid. If you make a scene, it will be unpleasant but I guarantee no one will mess with you again.