Right before the State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton apologized for how she handled sexual harassment during her 2008 campaign and explained some of her feelings about the whole situation. The media picks on Clinton a lot for all sorts of ridiculous things, so it would be easy to write this off as just another baseless attack from the haters. But actually, the whole story, as it was reported by the New York Times, and Clinton’s response to a woman’s #MeToo moment show that we’re far from changing the culture around sexual harassment, assault, and gender equality out here in the world.
Last week, the Times reported that a female campaign staffer reported that Burns Strider, Clinton’s faith advisor, repeatedly harassed her during the 2008 campaign. Upon hearing of the harassment, Clinton docked his pay for a few weeks, and he went to counseling. The woman was shuffled to another position within the campaign. Five years later, Strider moved onto another job, where he was later fired for “workplace issues,” including allegations that he harassed another woman. According to the New York Times report, Clinton was warned by other colleagues to get rid of Strider long before she did. Utrecht, Kleinfeld, Fiori, Partners, a law firm that represented Clinton’s campaign in 2008 and dealt with sexual harassment issues told the Times that, “To ensure a safe working environment, the campaign had a process to address complaints of misconduct or harassment. When matters arose, they were reviewed in accordance with these policies, and appropriate action was taken. This complaint was no exception.”
So, this was the incident that Clinton felt needed some clearing up on Tuesday night.
Her statement about it is both somehow not enough and also illustrates some cultural problems that people and organizations still seem to have when handling sexual harassment and assault allegations.
Clinton reiterated these events in her Facebook post and said that she spoke to the woman in question this week when the story broke. She said she was happy to hear from the woman that when she was moved to a new job, she actually flourished there. Basically, Clinton assured us, there was no bad blood there. That settled, Clinton moved on to explain her reasoning behind Strider’s “punishment,” citing her belief in giving people second chances. Importantly, she makes it clear that although she thought the punishment was severe enough at the time, if she had to go back in time, she would have handled the situation differently. She writes about thinking that maybe he wouldn’t have gotten that second job, harassed another woman, if she had thought differently:
She also wrote that she’s really mulling over some of this stuff, especially since she revealed her own experience with sexual harassment in her book, What Happened. This incident is a little different, she suggests, than other kinds of harassment in the workplace:
In addressing how she handled the situation, Clinton used a technique we’ve seen from many men who have been accused of harassment or sexual misconduct in the past few months: Talk about how times were different then, and that while the #MeToo movements is making people think about gender inequality and what sexual violence even is (and it can be an email like Strider sent that staffer), it was harder to see back then that something was up. If only we could all hop into a time machine, right? But this happened in 2008 and not 1958, so the culture wasn’t all that different than right now. According to the Times report and her own apology, Clinton was warned by her campaign manager and counsel to get rid of the guy.
If even Hillary Clinton didn’t think it was “bad enough” to fire him, how can we expect other people in management, law enforcement, the media, our friends and family, to take women seriously when they come forward?
Clinton asks if she had more responsibility to take care of this staffer and prevent Strider from hurting other women (as BuzzFeed News reports that he later did). The truth is that it’s not just up to women to take care of each other. Men have a responsibility to listen to women and act on our behalf, too. In fact, even more so, since more sexist men will learn more from a man they respect than a woman they can’t believe has power in the first place.
Unfortunately, until that beautiful day when men view all women as equals, it does fall to women to have each others’ backs.
Women do have to take claims seriously and take action when they’re in power and fight hard to change workplace procedures for punishing a perpetrator. If women aren’t in charge, they have to keep those “whisper networks” up and running to protect each other. This is what’s so disappointing about Clinton’s behavior just a decade ago: By removing the “problem” — the woman — and letting her male advisor back into the fold, she didn’t protect women at all.
Of course, it’s all complicated AF. Women, especially women who came of age before, well, just a few months ago, have been socialized to just truck on, to weigh certain kinds of sexual harassment against others, and that’s not even accounting for the actual violent crimes that occur. We ask ourselves, “Is an explicit email that bad? What’s just unwanted flirty behavior and what’s a grope? Those are the same, right? Are they the same as blocking someone’s promotion because they didn’t perform a sex act?” We have to fight our own internal monologue all the time.
What we’re seeing as more of these stories come out (and kudos to Clinton for at least owning up to her mistake, however flawed her apology was) is that all of this second guessing and head scratching about the consequences of punishing men for sexist behavior is holding women back. And to be quite honest, we still don’t know how long it will take for some of the accused men to make a comeback despite their behavior towards women that’s been revealed, whether it’s Burns Strider, Aziz Ansari, or Al Franken. They’re all different cases, obviously. But these men should be properly held accountable. Clinton’s apology for how she handled sexual harassment in her campaign shows that we’re a long, long way from doing that.