Last year’s midterm elections deemed 2018 the “Year of the Woman,” with more women running and being elected into political office than ever before. As important as it is to commend this breakthrough and to anticipate (and most critically, fight for) future elections where female representation increases even further, it is also crucial that we understand that women’s relationship with political office is more than just representation. Yes, women hold more elected political positions than ever before, but their representation is still less than what their demographic warrants. In addition, the circumstances through which a woman runs for, is elected to, and participates in political office is still plagued by a misogynistic culture and a double standard that is to the detriment of women.
Former Representative Katie Hill’s’ resignation last week and the circumstances leading up to it is one such example. Hill was elected into Congress along with a wave of Democratic candidates during the 2018 midterm elections, winning California’s 25th district over a Republican incumbent by nine percentage points. Over the course of her first year as a representative in the House, Hill served on the House Armed Service Committee and was Vice Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Last week, Hill was accused of having a sexual relationship with one of her male congressional staff members. These allegations, if proved to have merit, would violate a House Rule that, effective last year, bans relationships between members of Congress and their congressional staffers. In the midst of this, new allegations and pornographic photos leaked portraying Hill in a “throuple” with her then-husband and a female campaign staffer. While Hill denied the first allegations of her relationship with her male congressional staff member, she admitted to her relationship with the female campaign staffer. In the days following, more intimate photos were leaked and the focus shifted away from her accused behavior with staff members and more toward judgements and criticisms about her personal choices, body and sexuality. Ultimately, Hill resigned. In her passionate resignation speech, Hill recognized her own shortcomings, but called out the double standard and misogyny infused in our political world.
There are many important things to note when unpacking Hill’s resignation and the double standard it reflects. First and foremost, it is essential to recognize that women are not a homogeneous group. Different women are afforded different treatments on the basis of intersecting facets of their identity. Hill is a white, economically well-off cisgender woman. As much as her treatment was heavily influenced by her gender and bisexuality, it was also impacted by her race, class, ability and other structures. It is imperative that we recognize and further challenge how our political and social culture yield different treatment and expectations to women of various compounding identities, for example to lower-income women and women of color.
It is also important to note that the leaked photos and even Hill’s admitted relationship with a campaign staffer have little bearing on the House misconduct inquiry, which was started to investigate whether Hill violated the House’s rules of conduct by engaging in sexual relations with a congressional staff member. The pivot to focus more on the leaked photos and on her admitted relationship with a female campaign staffer was not an essential emphasis for the purpose of the investigation at hand as they were not against House rules. The fact that it became the emphasis is indicative of the media and politics’ masculinized culture that feeds on the flaws and sexualization of women.
Lastly, I write this op-ed in complete recognition that the allegations against Former Representative Katie Hill are serious. Any politicians’ relationship with their congressional staff member naturally has power dynamics that open up the door for coercion and other blurred lines of consent. Hill resigned before a thorough inquiry into those allegations were completed and, despite her adamant denials, such an inquiry would have delivered a more affirmative conclusion on those accusations. It is entirely possible that there is still so much that we do not know.
Despite any unknown information and the complexity of Hill’s resignation, she is still a victim to a double standard and a process that was undoubtedly unfair and vindictive against her gender and sexuality. In the days following the initial allegations and the revenge porn, Hill was aggressively called on to resign. The comments were not just political. Hill was threatened, sexualized, vilified, mocked for her sexuality and preyed upon by the media. It’s hard to conceptualize the same treatment being presented to a man under the same set of conditions. In fact, such treatment has not been imposed upon men in “similar” situations, such as ex-Senator Al Franken who was accused of forcibly and nonconsensually kissing and touching a female radio-host, with seven other women responding with their own allegations of sexual misconduct against him. While Franken ultimately resigned three weeks after the allegations surfaced, many politicians and even the public did not urge for his resignation and even viewed him as a victim. The contrast of these two responses, especially given their stark circumstantial differences, are indicative of male privilege and the double standard present in politics. Furthermore, the ability of unrelated, personal factors (such as pornographic photos) to not only surface, but to seep to the center of all concerns and criticisms made against Hill reflect the frequent sexualization of women and the misogyny present in politics, which leached from society at large.
The leaked nudes and the way it flourished in the media and political discourse are problematic for many reasons. For one, the photos were allegedly leaked by Hill’s abusive ex-husband and, if true, would be an act of further abuse. In addition, regardless of who the perpetrator was, they were supposedly taken and most certainly released without Hill’s knowledge or consent. As a result, they are violent in nature. Unwillingly leaked photos and revenge porn represent the ongoing barriers that unfairly prevent women from feeling secure in their bodies, having bodily autonomy and dictating their own sexual choices. To make matters worse, so many individuals and news sources bathed in such content with absolute dismissal for the oppressive underpinnings behind them.
Secondly, the leaked photos and the treatment thereafter reflect the active double standard regarding women and how they are viewed in political office and society. Plenty of studies have shown that women, especially those who enter the political realm, are held to higher standards of honesty and integrity than their male counterparts. Beyond research, this is certainly translated into real-life responses and media depictions that unabashedly judge women more harshly than male candidates. This is greatly exemplified through the aforementioned case of Al Franken—not to mention through the responses (or lack thereof) to accusations made against our own president. Countless women have accused President Donald Trump of sexual assault, and yet these accusations have hardly incited political concern or accountability. It is thus, unfortunately, not surprising that many men who face allegations of sexual misconduct, including Trump, remain in positions of power while many women are pushed to resign. If we are going to honestly and effectively work toward a society and government where sexual violence is not tolerated, then all perpetrators should be held responsible. Not only is this yet to be delivered, but the mechanisms that filter through which allegations are investigated and taken seriously are incredibly unfavorable to women.
Furthermore, a strong double standard also exists regarding women and their sexuality. The leaked photos of Hill and information about her “throuple” with a female campaign staffer were weaponized against her in an effort to undermine her, undervalue her work and deem her unfit for office. Effectively, they did just that; Hill resigned. But even greater than ending her political career, the response to these nudes have another dimension due to Hill’s outward bisexuality and the fact that she admitted to a relationship with a woman. The magnification of her relationship with a woman reveals the double standard that exists among women and their ability to be sexual beings. Hill was blamed for the photographs, as many believed it was her fault for having sexual relationships with the woman in the first place. Hill was also delegitimized as a politician because of her queerness, which became a misogynistic talking point. She was widely blamed for her revenge porn and her sexual activity while accused predators like Franken were never shamed for their sexuality as a whole, even when their sexual acts were non-consensual. As this exemplifies, society shames women for being sexual yet celebrates sexuality as a key facet of hegemonic masculinity.
Hill’s resignation goes beyond questions of culpability and is greater than the political office of one individual. It speaks to the misogynistic structures in place that prevent women from gaining social equity, let alone accessing positions of power in the United States. The truth is, the double standard still does exist. We can wave it all off with the progressive trend of our politics, the steady increase of women in politics or the prominence of female icons. We can wrongly perceive the diminished presence of blatant sexism and misogyny as an indication of substantial positive change. In the case of Hill, the headlines danced around this reality by justifying such treatment on the basis of the allegations against her while ignoring all the other external, unjustifiable and misogynistic factors at play.
And yet if women are to truly advance in politics and achieve greater social equity, we must go beyond mere representation to actively examine and criticize the oppressive structures deeply embedded in our political and social culture. We must continue to actively challenge the mistreatment of others and examine why certain political and social responses exist under certain conditions. On an everyday and individual basis, such systemic change can be found not only in voting more women into positions of power and pushing for greater accountability for all perpetrators of misconduct, but challenging the double standard as it manifests in our own interactions and in our own community.
Hill is not the first to fall victim to this double standard, nor will she be the last. Moments like these unveil deep, persisting gender biases and demonstrate the extent to which they continue to plague our political and social lives. This should sadden and frustrate us—but to the effect of informing our drive going forward. While the media has spent millions of words on Hill, it is dangerous to believe that this instance is isolated. Rather, this one example fuses to reinforce and build a culture that prevents women and individuals of other marginalized identities from being seen, from being heard and from accessing positions of power. If this does not shake you at your core, I urge you to think again. This fundamentally unjust culture deeply halts true, social equity and threatens our potential as a country. And I for one refuse to be silent.