Monday, December 31, 2018

Norm Shifting

An interesting moment in this week’s Elevate Maryland podcast came about when hosts Tom Coale and Candace Dodson Reed turned their attention to shifting representation in the State Legislature.

TC: We’re got the Year of the Woman in the General  assembly.

CDR: (gives numbers of women elected)

TC(going on) the context of two years ago , there being lobbyists were not even just harassing women, but touching them inappropriately. They were unsure how to deal with someone in the General Assembly who was accused of assaulting someone. In that context, the electorate responded with women leaders. And so now, I bet you, they’re going figure out a way to resolve the people that
don’t know how to act, that you know don’t know how to be in that environment. Because, just speaking from my personal experience, you’re not going to have someone like Courtney Watson go down to Annapolis and accept any of that type of behavior and so...

CDR: You’re damn right about that.


I laughed. I think most of us present laughed, imagining Ms. Watson giving a stern dressing down to anyone who got out of line. But, despite the humorous mental image, that’s not really the point that was being made here.

It’s not that we’ll have less bad behavior because Courtney Watson (or any other woman representative) is one tough cookie. Going down that road gets one to an odd place where the responsibility for harassment is placed on the victim. 

No woman working in the Maryland General Assembly should be harassed, demeaned, or assaulted. It should not matter in what capacity she serves or what sort of personality or demeanor she possesses. 

I think the real point that Tom Coale was making is that it’s the increase in the numbers of women in public office that will make the difference in changing attitudes and expectations. There’s not just “safety in numbers” in this case, but the ability to build the kind of power that commands respect. And that gets things accomplished.

It’s important not to lose sight of that point.

This was driven home to me rather abruptly as I rose to leave the taping and a gentleman I do not know well recognized me and moved to hug me. As you know, I’m not a fan of hugging people I don’t know. But in that moment I froze and let it happen because there were so many people there and I didn’t want to make a fuss.

I don’t mean to suggest that this was harassment. But I wasn’t comfortable with it. And yet in the environment of a crowded restaurant I was reluctant to stand up for myself and make my wishes known. On paper I may be a tough cookie. When put on the spot I crumbled.

What we know of past behavior during the legislative session comes from the stories of many incidents, both big and small, where women’s rights were violated and their ability to do their jobs was compromised. This happened not because of any deficiencies or weakness on the women’s part. It happened, and continued to happen, because the number of women was such a small fraction of the total and their power to effect change was so limited.

I don’t think we will ever know how many woman thought of themselves as Tough Cookies right up until something happened to them. And they crumbled. 

A tip of the hat to Elevate Maryland for addressing this particular issue. And here’s a wish for all our HoCo women headed to Annapolis to represent us: may you listen, learn, serve well, and come back safe and sound. 

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