Mary Barzee Flores, a Democrat running for a congressional seat in Florida’s 25th district, released a campaign video last November called “Power Trip.” The spot opens with footage of women at work: a waitress ties an apron around her waist; a maid smooths a sheet over a hotel bed. In the background, Barzee Flores narrates her own experiences as a woman in the workplace, saying she “dealt with handsy customers, harassment, and even assault from a boss.” Then the ad cuts to a shot of Barzee Flores, with a smart blonde bob and red lipstick, as she reveals that on her first day as a lawyer, a judge “cracked a joke” about her appearance–letting viewers know the harassment didn’t stop even when Barzee Flores moved from working-class jobs to the white-collar world of law.
Barzee Flores is one of a handful of candidates running for office in the 2018 midterms who are divulging their own stories of sexual harassment and assault. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, these candidates are drawing on their experiences to connect with voters and to inform their policy priorities.
Ayanna Pressley, a progressive member of the Boston City Council who is running for a seat in Massachusetts’s 7th Congressional District, revealed in 2011—long before #MeToo vaulted the topic into the national political discourse—that she is a rape survivor. Now, as she challenges incumbent Michael Capuano in a September Democratic primary, she’s put her status as a survivor and advocate for others near the forefront of her campaign. “I have dedicated my life to combating trauma in all forms—domestic, sexual, gun violence—and so the opportunity to potentially be in Congress at a moment of elevated consciousness to codify activism in policy change is certainly an exciting prospect,” Pressley told The Nation.
In May, Democratic congressional candidate Katie Porter, who is running in California’s 45th district, divulged the physical and verbal abuse she endured from her now-ex-husband, whom she received a protective order against in 2013. She shared her story with The Huffington Post after she heard that a primary opponent was spreading rumors about her “shady background,” in Porter’s words, and claiming the details of her divorce might ruin her chances in the general election.
A lawyer and a mother of three, Porter called law enforcement multiple times because of her then-husband’s behavior. Once, she recalls, a responding officer told her she needed to learn how to control him and stop calling the police, or else her children might be taken by social services. The next time her husband turned violent, Porter decided not to call for help. “I saw that even as a lawyer, even as someone with a lot of resources, how a poor reaction from law enforcement can silence people from seeking help,” Porter said. She won the Democratic primary in June and will be running against Republican Mimi Waters in November.
Gubernatorial candidates Chris Giunchigliani of Nevada and Krish Vignarajah of Maryland also came forward on the campaign trail with stories of sexual harm–Giunchigliani said she was abused by a family member as a child, and Vignarajah came out as a survivor when she released a plan to combat sexual violence as a part of her campaign. (Neither woman secured their states’ primary nomination.)
Current members of Congress have shared their own stories of gender discrimination or sexual violence in support of #MeToo—most notably Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who detailed the harassment she experienced in Congress in her memoir Off the Sidelines, in which she described male colleagues commenting on her weight in a sexualized manner.
There’s been some pushback to these disclosures from pundits who argue they may damage a candidate’s image. Back in April, New York’s Jonathan Chait cautioned women politicians against doing or saying things that could make them appear weak and, thus, unelectable. “On the left, victimhood is a prime source of authority…. Demonstrating that you have suffered harassment or microaggressions is a big win,” Chait wrote. “But among the country as a whole, the dynamic is very different.”
But to the candidates themselves, the notion that sharing their stories means they’ll be written off as victims isn’t just incorrect—it’s offensive. “I’m not even sure how to respond to that, because it’s so absurd,” Pressley said. “People disclose about being in recovery, people disclose about growing up with alcoholics, people disclose about battling PTSD. What’s the difference?”
Beyond the optics, there are real policy implications. Sofie Karasek, national organizer for #InMyWords, a campaign that seeks restorative justice for sexual-assault survivors, said people who have experienced sexual harm firsthand are more likely to dedicate their time to fighting it. “This moment demands us to think about how to construct better institutions that are actually built to serve the people who have been harmed,” Karasek said. “It’s something that people who have been directly impacted by sexual harm should be at the forefront of leading, and that should certainly include legislators or progressive candidates for office.”
Pressley, for her part, lists “ending sexual violence and harassment” as one of her policy priorities on her campaign site, and says there that she plans on making the issue “a major focus” once in Congress. She said her “lived experience” as a survivor of sexual assault makes her uniquely suited to combat it. “How I approach finding pathways to healing and justice for survivors would likely be different from someone who isn’t a survivor,” Pressley said. “It doesn’t mean that they’re any less caring or committed, it’s just that when you have someone who’s been personally impacted and they can engage that broader community, I think that ultimately the solutions that are developed are more impactful and more effective.”
Porter, similarly, said her experiences with law enforcement and the family-court system have given her a unique perspective on what families suffering from domestic violence need. “I’ve seen the need to strengthen access to mental-health services, to continue to support the training for law enforcement in the Violence Against Women Act,” Porter said. “I saw firsthand why you can’t just train law enforcement officers on domestic violence once,” she continued. “It’s like any other aspect of law enforcement.… you need continued training and continued updating of training to keep law-enforcement officers skilled at dealing with these situations.”
According to a study conducted by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which polled voters in January, voters respond well to strong calls to fight sexual harassment from candidates. Although the study only discussed sexual harassment—not assault—its results were promising: Across party and gender lines, voters favored candidates who promised to directly address sexual harassment and were skeptical of those who derided the movement to address it as too extreme. “This past year has really been such a dramatic tidal wave of truth-telling,” said Amanda Hunter, the foundations’ communications director. “What we found is that sexual harassment isn’t a niche issue, and it really has the potential to make a difference at the ballot box across party lines.”
According to Kelly Dittmar, scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics, this level of disclosure from candidates about gender-based violence is unprecedented. She said what makes the current moment noteworthy is that female candidates are pushing not just for a discussion of a taboo subject but also for legislative action. During 1992’s “Year of the Woman,” in the wake of Anita Hill’s testimony during now–Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings, female candidates treated sexual harassment as something that could be best discussed once more women were elected; anti-harassment policy was not necessarily central to those candidates’ platforms.
“The newness is really defining [abuse], problematizing it and tying it to a policy agenda,” Dittmar said. “How are these women going to take that experience and then use it to fuel policy priorities that they’ll bring to the table?”
But it’s not the first time women have used their personal experiences to inform their work in government. Dittmar noted a commonality between the female candidates who have spoken out about their history of sexual trauma and politicians who’ve discussed their own abortions during policy debates. “[Female] candidates or office holders have drawn upon distinctively gendered experiences in their own lives to shape their political positions, their political communications, political strategies; but most importantly, their own policy perspectives and priorities,” Dittmar said.
Organizers like Karasek argue that, rather than hamstringing women’s campaigns, disclosing personal stories about gender discrimination or assault can strengthen candidates’ appeal to voters. “So many people have experienced sexual harm that I think it actually causes people to identify more with the candidate,” Karasek said. “It’s something that can make people feel like, ‘Oh, that’s someone who relates to me. I’ve had a #MeToo experience, this person had a #MeToo experience, and they’re talking about it and it’s making me feel less isolated.’”
Pressley said the fact that she’s open about being a survivor has helped her connect with constituents since she first became a city councilor. “People from every walk of life have stopped me to tell me, ‘Thank you for telling your story, it’s my story. Thank you for telling your story, it’s my son’s story. Thank you for telling your story, it’s my mom’s story.’”
“I’m telling my story not to evoke or provoke sympathy or to make people uncomfortable,” Pressley continued. “I’m telling it because it isn’t just mine. In my telling my story, I create space and dignity for others to do the same. It’s those experiences that shift consciousness and, ultimately, change policy.”