After a former staffer spoke out about sexual harassment in the Kansas Legislature, the Senate president defended her and publicly pushed for reform. Their efforts represent two moments in a broader push to improve the working climate for women in the Statehouse. But will it be enough to turn the tide?
By: Dawn Bormann Novascone
Inside the Kansas Capitol, a custodian gently guides a broom along an already glistening floor outside the Senate and House chambers on a warm January day.
The brass handrails sparkle. Every inch of the ornate woodwork has been polished, giving the building an aura of grandeur. It’s quiet now, but within hours hundreds of people will walk the halls as the Legislature convenes to contend with the state’s budget situation, school funding lawsuit and dozens of other issues – some weighty, many less so. On this morning, though, the focus is elsewhere. It is on #MeToo.
The national movement against sexual assault and sexual harassment turned viral last fall as the hashtag #MeToo reflected the magnitude of workplace sexual harassment. It didn’t take long for news outlets, including The Hill and The Kansas City Star, to detail instances of harassment within the Kansas Statehouse walls. The reports rested heavily on the decision of one woman, former Kansas legislative staff member Abbie Hodgson, to speak out about her experiences. The onetime insider, now an outsider working 1,100 miles away in Washington, D.C., described a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination – subtle and overt – that included at least one publicly elected lawmaker asking paid staff members for sex and college interns serving as designated drivers
“Sexual harassment is an occupational hazard for women in the Kansas Statehouse,” Hodgson wrote in a commentary for The Star.
At least two other women, lobbyist Elise Higgins and former Democratic campaign staffer Kelly Schodorf, went on the record to share similar experiences in news articles.
One said that a Republican representative inquired about kissing her, despite knowing she was just out of high school. Another former intern told The Star that a Republican senator asked if her panties matched her outfit. They were on the Senate floor at the time.
The revelations pushed the issue to the forefront of the Legislature’s to-do list for the 2018 session. Some, such as House Speaker Pro Tem Scott Schwab, contested the idea that the Legislature had a culture of harassment, according to The Topeka Capital-Journal. But he, as many others have done in the Legislature, acknowledged that there was a problem to address.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican and the first woman to be elected to her post, quickly commissioned a nonprofit organization to recommend changes to the Legislature’s more than two-decade-old sexual harassment policy, and it delivered them at the end of 2017.
But if the discussion going on in Kansas echoed the voices within the national #MeToo movement, it also differed from that narrative in several ways.
Across the country, damning allegations of sexual abuse and harassment were coming to light involving powerful men such as
Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein. “Today” show anchor Matt Lauer was dismissed for sexual misconduct, and U.S. Sen. Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, resigned after sexual harassment and groping allegations surfaced.
In Kansas, however, none of the alleged perpetrators were identified. The women making the allegations declined to name them, often citing fear of retribution. Hodgson was one of the few women who have worked in the Statehouse, be it as a lobbyist or legislator, to talk publicly about her experiences. (She too has declined requests from reporters to name names.)
“I am one person,” Hodgson says.
Are there other female staffers, interns, lobbyists and lawmakers with similar stories to tell? Hodgson says she has heard from them but they do not feel comfortable speaking on the record for fear of jeopardizing their careers, being labeled as troublemakers, losing allies in a deeply fractured political environment or being quietly pushed aside for not playing the game. Blowing the whistle on gender bias or sexual discrimination isn’t necessarily rewarded by voters.
Even Wagle – who says, “I just don’t think there’s any woman that hasn’t experienced sexual harassment” – declined to go into specifics. But she has used her position to advance solutions. The matter goes beyond workplace professionalism, she says, but that’s a good place to start.
“This is an environment where predatory behavior is absolutely unacceptable,” Wagle says.
Wagle asked the Women’s Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes equity and opportunity for women, to help. The Kansas City
based foundation, which serves Kansas and Missouri, also stepped in to help in 2015 after two members of the Missouri General Assembly resigned amid allegations of sexually harassing college interns.
Although the antics of those neighboring legislators were met with near universal outrage, it was not until Hodgson, now living outside the state, came forward that legislators in Topeka acknowledged that some fellow lawmakers have used their power to denigrate, humiliate and harass women. If 2018 does mark a turning point in dealing with sexual harassment in Topeka, it will be in no small part because of Hodgson’s willingness to speak out and the efforts of Capitol insiders, such as Wagle, to ensure that changes become reality.
The level of interest Hodgson and Wagle share on this issue is unusual considering they are separated by decades in age and sit on opposing ends of the political spectrum. (Wagle, a conservative Republican, has faced pointed criticism from the center and left over her actions related to this year’s public school funding debate.)
They hadn’t spoken as of late February, but they complimented each other’s efforts in interviews with The Journal. Their connection is that they’ve made the rare choice to speak out publicly on the issue.
It’s a choice that could carry consequences.
When Hodgson first shared her story with a reporter, her mother had a stark prediction: “You’ll never work in Kansas again.”
“That was sort of devastating to me,” she says.
The idea that Hodgson might not find work again in Kansas politics caused Wagle to sit up straight in her chair. “I would hope she gets hired. She’s the first person that should be hired,” she says.
Wagle credited Hodgson with overcoming the institutional inertia that often prevents change. “We’re able to address it because Abbie told her story publicly. We have a lot to thank for her openness. Because we wouldn’t be here without it,” she says. “She was the brave woman behind this whole story.”
It’s why Wagle says she’s adamant about supporting those who do come forward. Too many others were afraid in the past.
For her part, Hodgson credits Wagle for carrying the ball after news coverage brought the issue to the fore.
“I do see Senator Wagle as being the strongest force, and I greatly appreciate the fact that this has held her attention,” Hodgson says. “I think that up until this point, there may have been pops of issues, but it hasn’t been something that someone has sustained.”
The only question now is: How much will things change as a result of each woman’s willingness to become a public face of the issue?
Technical Versus Adaptive Solutions
Wendy Doyle, president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation, says it’s crucial to mobilize change immediately.
“There is this moment in time where the victims are feeling the culture, and (the) climate is right to come forward and report,” Doyle says. “It’s really forcing tough decisions and hard work to be done and made.”
To reduce sexual harassment and discrimination at the Kansas Statehouse, the Women’s Foundation offered several recommendations.
Victims should be allowed to report anonymously and have access to free legal counsel and free counseling.
The Legislature should hire independent outside legal counsel with subpoena power to conduct sexual harassment investigations and present written reports to human resources directors or legislative committees.
The state should prohibit secret settlements in sexual harassment cases, mandate that all elected officials, staff, interns and lobbyists participate in mandatory annual training and establish a non-fraternization policy for elected officials, legislative staff, interns and lobbyists.
The burden of adopting the recommendations falls on the Legislature itself. Wagle, while noting that the state can’t legally force elected officials to attend sexual harassment training, didn’t wait to launch the program. One-hour sessions started in January almost immediately after legislators arrived in Topeka for this year’s session.
The foundation also will identify other key partners to work alongside elected officials. The fact that both Wagle and Gov. Jeff Colyer have spoken out against sexual harassment helps, Doyle says.
“It does need to start at the top,” Doyle says. “That’s really important to create that culture.”
The Journal contacted multiple legislators besides Wagle for comment on the issue, but they either chose not to comment or did not return phone calls or messages.
One lawmaker commented briefly but would only talk in detail off-the-record. The individual echoed similar concerns that Hodgson has about whether the Legislature is addressing the underlying causes of the problem versus treating the symptoms.
Hodgson, for one, applauds the push to train legislators and suggest ideas. But she worries that the proposed changes feel like short-term technical fixes to get past some distressing headlines.
“My concern is that they are putting in place very technical solutions and that they’re not necessarily the tools that will change the culture. I think that by my speaking out, we have certainly raised awareness or raised the heat. Under the dome, some folks are on notice that their behavior is no longer acceptable,” Hodgson says.
In fact, Hodgson is among those who believe that addressing the problem will require spending more time in diagnosis and addressing questions such as: Who is defining the problem? What is the problem being solved?
But that could require a great deal more awareness than simply attending training or endorsing a new set of policies. Public pressure on lawmakers to do something quickly may be preventing them from fully understanding all the ways that sexual harassment and gender discrimination affect working the Statehouse. Will the proposals being discussed now fundamentally change how people there operate?
Giving women a relatively safe way to share their experiences would be a step forward to addressing adaptive aspects of the problem, Hodgson says.
“I would really like to see an attempt to speak to more women about their experiences in an anonymous fashion – by someone outside of the Legislature and the political process – to make sure that we understand the scope of the problem before even trying to address it,” Hodgson says.
The one-hour voluntary training for lawmakers and the recommendations by the Woman’s Foundation to push for better working conditions for women are a start. But changing the working environment will require a great deal more.
“We need a much deeper dive to help individuals understand the systemic power and abuse of that power within the Capitol,” Hodgson says.
Learning is Possible
Getting at systemic change forces people to reflect and consider their role in the problem. It’s a deeply personal endeavor that isn’t easy, especially for those used to being in powerful roles and setting the agenda.
Hodgson optimistically believes that if many Statehouse regulars did understand their shortcomings, they would choose to change. A great example happened one workday as Hodgson kneeled on the House floor to speak with a female legislator.
“Oh, you can sit on my lap,” a male lawmaker offered.
“I was mortified,” she says. “Here I am in a professional setting and he’s treating me in this fashion, and the female legislator didn’t speak up.”
Hodgson recalls making a joke to downplay what was clearly a crude comment. But she remembers it vividly in part because the male lawmaker appeared completely oblivious to the overt sexist display in the workplace. And it wasn’t a lawmaker who typically made off-color comments like that.
“I don’t think that’s appropriate in very many situations, let alone a professional situation,” she says. “Recognizing the full scope of the problem and helping people … to understand the profound effects that these small instances have in a cumulative manner – it’s just something that takes more than an hour.”
Hodgson thinks the majority of lawmakers would appreciate more thorough training. After #MeToo started, men and women alike appear to be listening.
Training might also help with generational differences that can sometimes pit women against women. What one woman considers sexual harassment or gender discrimination, another woman might consider an annoyance that she’s been dealing with for generations. The differences might seem small to some, but defining sexual harassment and discrimination is an important step. It can set the standard for what’s acceptable and what doesn’t pass muster.
Another challenge is that politics pulls together men and women from diverse backgrounds with varying levels of exposure to sexual discrimination training. One group of legislators might be used to strict corporate rules written by lawyers and administered by a human resources department, while another might run a family business and serve as the sole employee.
After the first story broke about Hodgson’s experiences, acquaintances reached out to say: “Have I ever done anything that made you feel uncomfortable?”
It was striking to Hodgson because it showed that people want to better understand the issue. They were willing to ask the hard questions and digest difficult answers. Other longtime acquaintances were noticeably quiet.
An Unhealthy Environment?
Hodgson publicly added her name to the #MeToo list about 15 months after leaving her job as chief of staff for then-House Minority Leader Tom Burroughs. She now works at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. She was no newcomer to the Statehouse environment. Before serving as a House staffer, she had several other roles, including as a speechwriter to Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. But things were different when she worked for a representative.
She heard numerous inappropriate comments from legislators. In addition to the “sit on my lap” incident, she says another lawmaker rested his hands on her back and inched downward. One lawmaker, who Hodgson views as particularly predatory and still serves in the Legislature, propositioned Hodgson for sex at a Democratic fundraiser.
She consulted others inside and outside her political party. They offered similar accounts, little advice and scant hope. Eventually Hodgson discovered the Legislature’s sexual harassment policy hadn’t been updated since 1994. It was useless given that it made little attempt to protect a victim’s livelihood from those who answer only to voters.
When Hodgson voiced complaints to her boss, she felt ignored and even intimidated. Her boss reportedly disagrees. (The Journal was unable to reach Burroughs by phone or email despite multiple attempts.) In the end, Hodgson left her job rather than remain in a position where she felt unsupported.
Part of the problem, she believes, is the evening party atmosphere that lobbyists and interest groups are more than happy to provide for those legislators who find that Topeka’s social amenities are subpar. It’s an atmosphere that constituents often know little about.
“I don’t think they have any concept of the environment in Topeka and how unprofessional it is. And I mean that well beyond instances of sexual harassment,” she says. “The amount of heavy drinking and socializing that goes on – I regularly describe it as adult summer camps. You get men and women who are away from home, away from their husbands and wives and their children.”
Make no mistake, Hodgson and many others believe that dinners and lunches spent outside the Statehouse are crucial tools for building relationships.
“But what I don’t see happen at these dinners very often is serious debates about how we’re going to fix the school funding crisis,” she says.
Hodgson wonders if lawmakers would go out for drinks night after night if they were in their hometown.
“If your City Council and county commissioners were going out every night in Johnson County and getting wasted on someone else’s dime, you would have a significant problem with that,” she says.
Now that she’s spoken out, Hodgson has become a trusted confidant for women to talk about their experiences.
She accumulates more heartbreaking stories by the week, from members of both political parties. Even as Colyer was sending a message with his first executive order requiring all 20,000 executive branch employees to undergo mandatory sexual harassment training, Hodgson received a call about gender discrimination in the Statehouse.
It wasn’t someone willing to speak on the record with reporters. Hodgson says that even citing the person as an anonymous source would likely out her and result in her being fired from the job. It was yet another reminder of how discrimination can reinforce a culture of secrecy.
Hodgson understands why women don’t speak up. The fear of loss is substantial. Livelihoods and identities are at stake. Politicians also have little reason to speak up and formally report someone.
“I understand that, and it makes me sad for them,” she says.
It required a move outside Kansas for her to be able to speak out.
“I don’t want people to think that it is an isolated issue that’s only affected me because I’m the person who is speaking out and quoted most often,” she says.
For those who call to seek her advice, Hodgson at least this year can offer some support. She is convinced that Wagle and House Speaker Ron Ryckman will listen, take action and offer support. She has recommended at least one person seek their help this year.
But offering protection, even if it comes from a senior legislative authority, can be complicated.
If the predator is a lawmaker, it’s difficult to remove that person from political power. They were elected, not hired by a CEO.
“These are people that you have to continue working with. Even when someone did or said something to me that made me uncomfortable, they weren’t going away,” she says.
Hodgson’s risk was lessened after she left politics and considered it safe to step up and talk. She felt supported by her new employer.
“My employment is no longer dependent on those who ignored my concerns,” she says. “I knew my employer here would be supportive.”
However, that’s not a choice every woman has. And the more that women do leave politics, the more the problem could intensify.
The result is a climate that too often puts all the pressure on women to speak up and risk their careers and livelihoods or be chastised for not speaking up, while at the same time letting men off the hook for not finding ways to play greater roles as change agents.
“It’s disappointing to me that the onus has always been on the women,” Hodgson says.
A Formula for Change: More Women in Office
Changing what happens in the Statehouse when it comes to how women are treated may rest on the most long-term of long-term solutions. One of the best ways to end gender discrimination is to get more women to run for office and serve, Doyle says.
The Women’s Foundation offers what it calls the Appointments Project to help further that goal. It’s a training program that serves as a pipeline to encourage women to put their name in for appointments to positions like zoning boards. The effort includes a partnership with the League of Kansas Municipalities, Kansas State University Extension and the Kansas Health Foundation, which funds the Kansas Leadership Center, publisher of The Journal.
The group also encourages women to run for office locally, statewide and beyond. Women can gain valuable experience serving as appointees to boards that can help them in runs for elected office, Doyle says, and the more women who are elected to office, the more likely they are to ascend to powerful positions.
“We knew that if we were going to really be successful doing our public policy work, we definitely needed women at the table,”
Yet persuading women to run for office is challenging. Women regularly tell the politically connected that they’re not qualified, although their standards seem to be higher than men’s.
“What we found is women want to have nine of the 10 required qualifications. Men will have two of the 10 qualifications and feel like they’re qualified,” she says. “We have got to work at women building confidence.”
Women account for 28.5 percent of the Kansas Legislature in 2018 yet make up 50.2 percent of the state’s population. That has happened even though women tend to vote at a higher rate than men, according to the Status of Women in Kansas and the Bi-State Region report produced by the University of Kansas on behalf of the Women’s Foundation.
The same study found that Kansas women tend to attain higher education levels. However, significantly fewer women work in management positions compared with the rest of the United States. It has repercussions, Doyle says, given that Kansas women earned 79 cents for every dollar earned by Kansas men in 2014.
There is a lot at stake when women don’t set an example and create change at a policy level, Doyle says.
Women, Doyle says, might be civically engaged at their schools, churches and other organizations. But they don’t always think about elective or appointive office as a way to give back.
The foundation, which promotes policies providing paid family and medical leave and equal pay for equal work, offers webinar training and in-person training to reach women in urban and rural communities.
After the 2016 election, several women’s groups decried what felt like a regression. There had been a barrage of gender-specific insults being hurled at Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. At the same time, the crude words then-Republican candidate Donald Trump made on tape nearly a decade earlier about forcefully grabbing women’s genitalia were dismissed by the candidate as “locker-room talk”
Yet several national political organizations think the 2018 elections could mark a historic change. A Time magazine article in January 2018 highlighted the national and unprecedented surge in first-time female candidates. Across the country, there are more women running for office than ever, including at least 79 women debating a run for governor (including one in Kansas), the article said.
Kansas is no exception, Doyle says. The applicant pool for the foundation’s Appointments Project essentially doubled after the 2016 election.
“Women were really inspired and motivated – I want to do something, I want to see change – and went online and applied for our Appointments Project,” Doyle says.
That engagement, Doyle says, could have a profound impact on the next intern, legislator, staffer or lobbyist.
But it’s also a sign that, no matter what good things happen during the legislative session, the adaptive challenge of making the Statehouse a friendlier place for women is only going to be remedied over the long haul.
It’s a start, albeit a sluggish one, Hodgson says. Yet once more women work within the Statehouse, the changes should continue.
“So often these things would happen, and you never thought about reporting them. We thought, ‘Oh, this is life,’” she says. “I think women now have a greater confidence in saying, ‘This is not acceptable.’”
A version of this article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.