Changing the culture

Nonsequiteuse looks at the big picture.


Let’s talk about changing the culture of the Texas legislature. What needs to happen, who needs to do it, what are the consequences, and how do we move forward.

The first suggestion that always comes up is that we should elect more women. I’m all for that.

I would expand that sentiment and say that we need a legislature that represents the great diversity of our state. Not just more women, but people of all races, all genders, all orientations, all religions, all levels of physical ability, and all socio-economic backgrounds.

That’s the long game, though, and we deserve more immediate answers and action. But what works when you’re facing institutional sexism? There are two things that will/have always made it tough to combat institutional discrimination, and, in this case, sexism:

There are those who will say it is the women’s responsibility to expose (or police, educate, train, or censure) the men.
There are those who will tell the women that we risk too much by exposing the offenders.

To to the first point: in some ways, and on a small scale, that one-on-one policing happens. Sen. Van de Putte is quoted in the article:

“At times. You know, [pornographic images] on their personal iPads or something. You just say, ‘Gentlemen, don’t bring that to the floor… Just do that at home.’”

Realistically, however, when sexism is endemic, one-on-one peer counseling and education places too great a burden on the group suffering from it while absolving those in power from responsibility. And let’s not even get into how unrealistic it is to expect a 23-year-old aide to call out a 6-term representative on gray area behavior like telling someone she looks nice today.

To the second point: if women start naming and shaming, women will be blamed for the consequences of that calling out, and, in may ways, punished more than the people being called out. Punished personally, and punished at a policy level. Because while it would be lovely if the ultra-conservative right wingers who vote regularly to abridge women’s rights were caught viewing porn or propositioning reporters, this behavior isn’t happening on only one side of the aisle.

In a time when progressives need every vote we can get, the question will be can we afford to lose an ally “just” because he (or she) participates in or tolerates sexist behavior?

In other words, when men vote to protect women’s rights or treat women equally to men at the policy level, women get told we have to put up with their bad behavior at the personal level, because collectively, we can’t risk losing their votes.

There is no quick answer. Many things need to happen.

She is writing about that Olivia Messer article in the Observer. I’m sorry to say that I took the easy way out by wishing that more women would call out the kind of behavior detailed in that story. I know better than to say stuff like that. It is of course everyone’s responsibility, first and foremost to not be the kind of person that engages in the appalling behavior Messer documents, to call it out ourselves when we see it regardless of whether it was aimed at us or not, and to support those who do call it out. We Democrats need to be asking the male legislators we’ve been voting for what they have experienced in the Legislature and what they are doing to combat the problem that their female colleagues have experienced. We also need to be prepared to perform electoral interventions on those that turn out to be part of the problem. We can’t say we didn’t know about the problem, or that we didn’t know it was that bad. It’s on all of us, and that most certainly includes me, to work to end this behavior. Human nature being what it is, it will never fully go away, but we can make it clear that it is unacceptable and comes with a high cost. I promise to do my part.

The good news is that the mainstream media appears to have taken notice of Messer’s article as well. Here’s Sharon Grigsby in the DMN:

I contacted two young women who have worked in different capacities in the Legislature — and both of whom I knew would tell me the truth. Both had the same reaction to my question about the “Sexist Little Secret” story: Yes, it’s accurate. One told me of being warned along the lines of, “You better watch out or you’re going to find yourself pregnant before the session is up with all the lawmakers walking around.” The other, despite being a well-educated policy specialist, spent a lot of her time “cutting cakes and being the office housekeeper.”

I’ve sent the Texas Observer article around to everyone on our staff to read, and I hope our editorial board will decide to write on this topic. Too often, when I finally gathered the courage to report the incidents I experienced as a young woman in the workplace, my stories were met with disbelief. “You must be exaggerating. XX wouldn’t do that” was the common feedback.

No one has any excuse for making that statement any more. Let’s keep that light shining.

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6 Responses to Changing the culture

  1. Andrea says:

    Great post, and I don’t think you took the easy way out – there are some women in positions of power (and men) who can and should say something when they see something. I’d love for good people on the floor of the lege to whip out a cell phone and snap pix of their peers looking at porn. That would take care of that problem. The worst offenders, however, know this is about power and control, and their worst behavior comes out only in front of people who are decidedly not in a position to do much about it. Consider what Oprah said about Paula Deen. I’d be curious to know what male legislators would say to you if you asked, man to man, with no one else around. Some might agree with you that it is a problem, but I can guarantee that some would give you the hey, we’re dudes alone, amirite, and these ladeez need to chill out. And they’d say that even knowing you have a blog, a good, kind and fair heart, and daughters.

  2. Susan says:

    Thanks, Charles. It’s sometimes easy to forget how pervasive it is. Campaigns & sessions can be one long road-trip of bad behavior, and it’s hard to call out powerful people when you get paid to answer the phone. The promise of help is meaningful. Thank you.

  3. Emily DePrang says:

    Charles, I’m so proud and impressed. I think I’ve never read an online sentence so gracious and heartening as “I know better than to say stuff like that.” And thank you for the continued attention to Messer’s important and well executed piece.

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