Changing the Culture of the Texas Legislature

Olivia Messer wrote a remarkable story for the Texas Observer about sexism in the Texas legislature. Read the whole thing.

Direct quotes from her piece:

  • What surprised me was how many women who work in the Capitol—legislators, staffers, lobbyists, other reporters—felt the same way. Everyone, it seemed, had a story or anecdote about being objectified or patronized.
  • Even the most powerful women in the Legislature experience it.
  • Yet, despite their strong feelings, women in the Capitol rarely talk about, except in the most private discussions, the misogyny they see all the time.
  • Some women lawmakers not only tolerate misogyny at the Legislature, they play into it.

Let’s talk about changing the culture of the Texas legislature. What needs to happen, who needs to do it, what are the consequences, and how do we move forward.

The first suggestion that always comes up is that we should elect more women. I’m all for that.

I would expand that sentiment and say that we need a legislature that represents the great diversity of our state. Not just more women, but people of all races, all genders, all orientations, all religions, all levels of physical ability, and all socio-economic backgrounds.

That’s the long game, though, and we deserve more immediate answers and action. But what works when you’re facing institutional sexism? There are two things that will/have always made it tough to combat institutional discrimination, and, in this case, sexism:

  1. There are those who will say it is the women’s responsibility to expose (or police, educate, train, or censure) the men.
  2. There are those who will tell the women that we risk too much by exposing the offenders.

To to the first point: in some ways, and on a small scale, that one-on-one policing happens. Sen. Van de Putte is quoted in the article:

“At times. You know, [pornographic images] on their personal iPads or something. You just say, ‘Gentlemen, don’t bring that to the floor… Just do that at home.’”

Realistically, however, when sexism is endemic, one-on-one peer counseling and education places too great a burden on the group suffering from it while absolving those in power from responsibility. And let’s not even get into how unrealistic it is to expect a 23-year-old aide to call out a 6-term representative on gray area behavior like telling someone she looks nice today.

To the second point: if women start naming and shaming, women will be blamed for the consequences of that calling out, and, in may ways, punished more than the people being called out. Punished personally, and punished at a policy level. Because while it would be lovely if the ultra-conservative right wingers who vote regularly to abridge women’s rights were caught viewing porn or propositioning reporters, this behavior isn’t happening on only one side of the aisle. 

In a time when progressives need every vote we can get, the question will be can we afford to lose an ally “just” because he (or she) participates in or tolerates sexist behavior?

In other words, when men vote to protect women’s rights or treat women equally to men at the policy level, women get told we have to put up with their bad behavior at the personal level, because collectively, we can’t risk losing their votes.  

There is no quick answer. Many things need to happen.

  • People who are in positions of power and privilege need to call out their peers AND be honest with themselves about their own behavior.
  • Systems need to be put in place that not only set an expectation of responsible, respectful behavior, but create a system for sanctioning deviations from that expectation in a way that puts the burden on the offender and doesn’t jeopardize the safety or livelihood of the person who reports the deviation.
  • Rules need to be changed when, upon examination, they clearly privilege some people over other people. (Here’s a great example.)
  • If elected officials cannot manage to stop looking at pornography while working, whether on the floor, in their offices, or using their VPN, they go into a treatment program and be counseled out of office.
  • Respect should be prioritized at both a personal and a policy level. Just as no one should think it appropriate to ask a woman whether her breast are real or fake, no one should think it is appropriate to vote against equal pay for equal work.
  • Progressive organizations that nurture future leaders, carry out work at the grassroots level, raise funds for candidates, etc., need to be just as intentional about ending institutional sexism (and all discriminatory/exclusionary -isms) at every level as we expect the legislature to be. Because at a certain point, they get away with it at the top because they’ve gotten away with it all along.

What else? What systems should be put in place, conversations had, work done? How do you feel about naming names, and whose responsibility it should be to do that? How do we work constructively so that we don’t read this same article ten years from now?

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One Response to Changing the Culture of the Texas Legislature

  1. Pingback: Changing the culture – Off the Kuff

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