Little Sexist Secret, Big Texas Problem

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Olivia Messer published an excellent piece in the Texas Observer called “The Texas Legislature's Sexist Little Secret.” For fellow former legislative staffer and BOR writer Shelby Alexander and I, this piece was full of the unspoken truths of Texas state capitol culture.  

Genevieve: The 83rd Regular Legislative Session was my first experience in the Texas State Capitol. For me, it was culture shock. I moved from working in women-centered, progressive, feminist campaign and academic spaces to an environment that was predominantly run by fairly conservative men. It was like a splash of cold water to the face.

What really struck me when this piece came out was the number of my (female) colleagues from session who were sharing this on social media. This is something that clearly resonates with the experiences of many women working at the Texas Capitol, and it was a relief to see it out in the open.

Shelby: Absolutely. The stories shared to me by veteran female staffers were incredibly shocking- however, all of these stories were provided within a context that recognized this as commonplace, as another barrier to overcome.

This article just scrapes the surface. Messer highlights how visible misogyny is at the Capitol. But it's important to remember it doesn't just end there. There are plenty of people who can talk about the bigotry based on race/class/ability/gender/sexual orientation that made working at the Capitol even more difficult. Genevieve and I were two white women working for women of color Representatives. I was working for the only out LGBTQ-identified House member. When reading that article, we should recognize all of the barriers in place for people who are trying to work their way up in the legislature who are still fighting to be heard and represented.

Further discussion of the sexist capitol culture and Messer's piece after the jump.One of the most poignant aspects of Messer's piece was the exposure of the sexism on the floor of the House and Senate chambers. Even female members, who were elected by the same process that brought their male colleagues to the legislature, are not safe from sexist remarks and prejudice.

What's more, it should surprise no one that a Good Old Boy legislature would turn out bills such as the sonogram law during the 82nd legislative session, and the omnibus abortion bill that Governor Perry recently signed into law. Nor should it come as a surprise that a bill aimed at addressing the gender pay gap by giving women the legal tools necessary to demand equal pay struggled to gain passage and then died on Governor Perry's desk.

While women are still in the minority of elected officials in our state legislature, this sexist culture will continue no matter how many points of personal privilege Representative Senfronia Thompson takes.

During the debate over the first incarnation of House Bill 2 in the first special session, Representative Thompson spoke about the need to include an exemption for victims of rape and incest. Those watching from the gallery did not need to look far to see the complete lack of regard for women in the House.  As Representative Thompson described the horrors of rape and incest, four male representatives gathered around a desk were laughing and paying little attention to what this 40 year lawmaker had to say.

During the 83rd Regular Session, two former staffers, both men, held a staff training for first time legislative aides and interns. Male pronouns were used in every instance to describe those in positions of power (Senators, Representatives, Chiefs of Staff, and Legislative Directors).  Legislative Aides and interns, however, were mostly female. When emphasizing the importance of keeping the members' state emails clean, they used a hypothetical: “Say your boss gets a bikini pic from a friend from the club…”  

Changing the culture at the capitol means more than just electing women. Women need to occupy a greater number of the positions of power in offices and committees so that they will have the ability to create more gender equitable spaces under the dome. But, what about this misogynist workplace environment encourages young women to work their way up the legislative ladder? To get to the position of Legislative Director or Chief of Staff, a young woman must have at least one session at the legislature under her belt. Even in Democratic offices, the sexist attitude of the capitol can prevail. Is a desire to create change – both through policy and as a higher level staffer – enough to keep young women around?

Lois Kolkhorst's quote in the article is pretty accurate:  “Serving in the Legislature is like being a scientist. You can stand back and watch a test tube of human struggles all on the House floor.”

This article is important because it reveals much of the environment of the legislature. It doesn't quite expand enough on how your professional and personal relationships begin to overlap. You spend countless, tiring hours with the people you are working with. Add long nights, sponsored happy hours, and things are bound to get messy— primarily for people who don't respect personal space, especially those belonging to women. There is little give in the power struggle, and many of those men in control haven't found the need to draw the line.

This piece provides the framework to evaluate how the anti-woman sentiment continues from the actions of the legislators to the bills we see get passed. Women across party lines come together to speak against unfair treatment, but Republican women who experience this misogyny refuse to connect this to the bills they vote for.

Conservative women endure the misogyny, but attempt to use their position to make it seem like they're “tougher” for it– that they're not letting being a woman get in the way. When Patricia Harless said it was scary being a blonde female legislator around men who “knew so much” about electricity, she lowered expectations about herself before anybody else could. She did it so no matter what, people would be impressed with her. When women participate in this kind of power exchange, they always receive less.

It's the same situation when Republican women vote against equal pay or bodily autonomy. They're exchanging power over themselves and other women to have a chance at moving their way up. If there aren't enough women in the legislature demanding respect on the floor and respect in the law, this cycle will persist. It's why we saw thousands of women this summer at Capitol demanding to be heard. It's why we're still here today.

The conservative atmosphere has forced people to think that everyone in this state starts on a level playing field. They force those who don't fit in the frame of the Good Old Boys to play catch up. Those willing to play that game make large sacrifices in the grab for power, and the rest of us are forced to live with the results.

Even those who have stood up against misogyny on and off paper– in and out of the Senate and House chambers — still have a struggle ahead of them. And as Messer points out, progress on this front is moving at a glacial pace. Despite ground-moving denouncements from venerated female representatives calling out sexism and prejudice, the Good Old Boys continue to win. The question for everyone invested in a better, more equitable pink dome is: What will it take for them to lose?

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About Author

Genevieve Cato

Genevieve Cato is a feminist activist and a native Texan. While not writing for the Burnt Orange Report, she can be found working for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, serving as a community member of the Communications Committee for the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, and drinking copious amounts of pretentious local craft beers.

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