Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) | Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP via Politico
“We were shocked, shocked,” Democrat sources told Politico (or words to that effect) after one of their Congresswomen, Marcy Kaptur, said that women in and around the House should up their standard of dress to protect themselves.
“We were stunned, stunned,” the sources, fresh from a Democrat caucus meeting on sexual harassment, added (more or less). “Nearly everyone in the room’s mouths were wide open aghast.” No-one knew what to say – until someone spotted a friendly reporter in the lobby, at which point the power of speech returned.
But why were they surprised? Because it had never, ever occurred to them that women showing a lot of arm and leg and cleavage might be a provocation to some men, or a little bit unfair to others? Or because they never, ever thought that a woman – let alone one of their own – would have the nerve to say it?
After all, the girls’ party position is this: “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.” A woman is never, ever responsible for being sexually harassed, not even the teeniest little bit responsible.
But 71-year-old Marcy Kaptur, who has served in Congress for more than three decades and has seen standards slip, could not sit through a meeting about how to tackle sexual harassment in Congress and not mention one of the issues that is staring everyone in the face. Politico reports her comments thus:
“I saw a member yesterday with her cleavage so deep it was down to the floor,” Kaptur said, according to the sources present. “And what I’ve seen … it's really an invitation.” The comments left many others in the room stunned, the sources said.
Kaptur said women on Capitol Hill should have to abide by a stricter dress code, like those adopted by the military or corporations.
“Maybe I’ll get booed for saying this, but many companies and the military [have] a dress code,” she said. “I have been appalled at some of the dress of … members and staff. Men have to wear ties and suits.”
Booed? She’ll probably be asked to resign, and join the ranks of disgraced men trying to salvage their reputations by claiming that the women now denouncing them were giving the wrong signals at the time. A rogue’s defence, for sure.
But Kaptur insists that she did not mean women are to blame if men harass them, only that they should protect themselves against a “pervasive problem” – badly behaved men, or perhaps just “men” full stop. In a statement to Politico she said:
“When I was first elected to Congress my office and I became a refuge for female staffers who had been mistreated by their bosses. Some of them in tears many days. It is something I carry with me to this day and something I brought up during our Caucus meeting,” she said. “Under no circumstances is it the victim's fault if they are harassed in any way. I shared the stories from my time here in the context of the ‘Me Too’ legislation and how we can elevate the decorum and the dress code to protect women from what is a pervasive problem here and in society at large.”
With all due respect to the elder stateswoman, I think she protests too much here about what amounts in some cases to “no-fault cleavage exposure”. She is being made to eat her words, and yet she does stop short of retracting her central point: decorum, especially in the nation’s legislature, which would be safer and fairer for everyone, women and men.
It’s not only 71-year-olds on the point of retirement, however, who have dared to mention what women themselves can do to change the rotten sexual culture. Last month, while accusations of sexual abuse of women gymnasts swirled around 2012 Olympics team doctor Lawrence G. Nassar, one of the team, Gabby Douglas said that it was up to women to “dress modestly,” “be classy” and not attract “the wrong crowd.”
Good advice. (And by the way, aren’t there, by now, any qualified female doctors who can look after women gymnasts?) But, along with an avalanche of other criticism on social media, former teammate Aly Reisman attacked her:, tweeting:
“Just because a woman does a sexy photoshoot or wears a sexy outfit does not give a man the right to shame her or not believe her when she comes forward about sexual abuse. What is wrong with some of you? AND when a woman dresses sexy it does not give a man the right to sexually abuse her EVER.”
Initially, reported the New York Times, “Ms. Douglas appeared to stand her ground, replying simply: “it goes both ways.” But about two hours later, she took to Twitter again to apologize and try to clarify her stance.
“i didn’t correctly word my reply & i am deeply sorry for coming off like i don’t stand alongside my teammates,” she wrote. “regardless of what you wear, abuse under any circumstance is never acceptable. i am WITH you. #metoo”
Most of us could have predicted the shock and horror that these two women, in very different circumstances, provoked with their unguarded comments. The real surprise factor in these two incidents, then, is that any woman would dare state such views in any forum, public or private. That Marcy Kaptur and Abby Douglas have, shows that common sense will tend to break out. The more it does regarding sexual culture, the better.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.