Former Republican Congresswoman Mary Bono said she was sexually harassed in Congress on more than one occasion but there is one specific incident that remains etched in her memory even after being out of Congress for nearly five years.
Bono, along with about a half dozen other members of Congress, were standing on the House floor.
“A colleague of mine walked up to the House floor and, in front of everybody, said ‘Hey, Mary, I just came from the gym and I was thinking about you in the shower.’ I guess he thought it was funny, which is sort of like the (Al) Franken moment. I think for some reason some people think this is funny,” Bono said in a telephone interview from her Washington, D.C., office with Uken Report.
The man remains in Congress today, she said, declining to identify him. There is no need to publicly shame him because he has changed his ways, Bono said.
“It was a teaching and learning moment for both of us, and it never happened again,” Bono said. “I continued to serve with him for many, many years, and we worked together quite well. I think that’s the important point here. I found my voice, I said, ‘Stop it.’ I think he realized it was over the top and it didn’t happen again. Had I not said anything, who knows if it would have continued. I had to find my voice. He had to hear from me that it was not OK.”
There was another incident, Bono said, but she does not remember the exact content of what was said.
I just remember it was wholly inappropriate and that one of my male colleagues actually reacted visibly and angrily and engaged on my behalf,” Bono said. “But I also realized that it was up to me to engage on my own behalf. This is something we all need to find our own voices about and we need to address it when it happens.”
As peers, she said they were trying to “demean,” “objectify” and “knock her down a notch.” They don’t see you as “whole” or as an “equal.”
Bono continued, “I felt like if I’m going to suit up and get out on the field to play with the guys, then I better learn how to handle being on that field playing with the guys. When inappropriate comments were made, a colleague stepping in on my behalf wasn’t good enough. I needed to do it myself At first, I felt, because I was working in a man’s world, that I just needed to learn how to roll with it. But a couple of times, it was bad enough that I needed to stand up for myself and ask people to knock it off.”
Her mantra, she said, and her staff knew it well, was: “I had to walk the fine line between being a flirt and being a bitch.”
There also need to be opportunities to get help and support, she said. Without hesitation, Bono added that she wholeheartedly supports House Speaker Paul Ryan’s call for mandatory sexual harassment training for all members of the House and their respective staffs.
Bono is one of at least four current and former members of Congress who have recently come forward with allegations of sexual harassment by their colleagues, according to a recent Associated Press report. Bono said she realizes now she was working in a toxic culture and accepted it.
“I’m speaking now because I recognized that I, too, was complicit in believing that the culture was what it was and that each person needed to survive it as an individual and be empowered to get the tools to survive it as an individual,” Bono said. “This awakening, this empowering movement we’re having now is telling men, as well as the men who have stories, that this is not unique to you and it’s time to recognize it for what it is and address it.”
The first thing that women do who are harassed, assaulted, or experience unwanted sexual advances is blame themselves, Bono said. They start to question what they did to get in such a position. They did not do anything. Most women, she said, “just stuff it” and move on.
“This is a great awakening and an opportunity to make a long overdue change,” Bono said. I believe that we didn’t even realize how embedded this sexual harassment has been — from one end of the spectrum, like the Harvey Weinstein situation, to the other end of the spectrum — with inappropriate comments. I don’t think we’ve realized how embedded it is in our culture and how we’ve learned to deal with it and accept it rather than confront it and change it. That’s what’s awesome here. People are talking about it and addressing it, and letting talent truly go where talent deserves to go as opposed to a man or a predator making or breaking somebody’s career.”
As the revelations of sexual harassment continue to surface from both members of Congress and staffers, Bono said she is “bothered” by those on Capitol Hill that plead ignorance that it happens.
“Nancy Pelosi said that the other day, and that was wrong,” Bono said. “You cannot be on Capitol Hill and not know this exists in the culture. If you claim you don’t know, then you are in massive denial.”
House Minority Leader Pelosi told CNN that no member of Congress ever told her that he or she was sexually harassed.
As media aggressively cover the accusations of sexual harassment in Congress, Bono said, reporters are not immune to perpetuating the behavior. She said there were times when she would direct a staff member to get on the phone to listen to the comments to bear witness to the behavior.
“There were some reporters who also crossed the line,” she said. “Reporters have the opportunity to make or break a politician’s life. When you talk about the Hill culture, it’s not just politicians. It’s also the media. … in Washington, it happens a lot.”
One of the most abhorrent aspects of a culture — whether it be Congress, Hollywood or corporations —that turns a blind eye and deaf ear to sexual harassment is that it kills dreams, Bono said.
“The most despicable and disgusting thing for me in the (Harvey) Weinstein example is that he put himself between a woman and her dreams. He used sex as the barrier,” Bono said. “I’ve heard … women saying, ‘I left what I was doing because I was afraid to confront it or I wouldn’t play the game.’ The point is that they were people on this career path, headed toward their dreams. There are plenty of impediments and difficulties in life without somebody standing in the way as a big block. That’s a key part of it, too.”