She was in line getting food at a State House political function when she felt someone place their hand on her rear end. She assumed it was an accident.
Then, it happened again.
When she looked behind her, state Rep. Anne Thayer said she caught a grin from a fellow state lawmaker. “I told him that if he ever did that again, he’d lose an arm,” the Anderson Republican recalled. “I’m real small, but I think he knew I was serious about the threat.”
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The incident was one of many that went unreported in a S.C. State House dotted with instances of sexism. There, for three days a week, lawmakers — most of them men — leave their families behind in their home towns, and are feted in Columbia by lobbyists and special interest groups in an often alcohol-infused atmosphere.
Over the past three years, sexual harassment complaints have led two lawmakers to resign.
Also, in 2015, a state senator publicly apologized after joking at a dinner with colleagues that women are a “lesser cut of meat.”
Back in 2001, an anonymous memo went around the State House suggesting young female House pages wear revealing blouses and consider underwear “optional.”
South Carolina’s State House is not alone in its sometimes ill-behaved fraternity-like behavior.
State capitols can be hubs of inappropriate relationships and advances. Last year, the Tennessee House expelled a lawmaker accused of inappropriate conduct with at least 22 women. And, at the federal level, the U.S. Treasury has a special fund to settle claims against members of Congress.
In the S.C. State House, Speaker Jay Lucas has earned female lawmakers’ praise for taking a stand on the issue, strengthening the chamber’s anti-harassment policy and pushing out legislators who cross it.
The S.C. Senate, meanwhile, has no written policy and says it has received no sexual harassment complaints.
Still, some female legislators privately say they watch protectively over State House pages – typically college-aged women assigned to lawmakers or State House offices. Some also acknowledge that they fear speaking out about harassment because dosing so could create a divide between themselves and their male colleagues, whose support they need on legislative issues.
‘You come to expect it’
“You smell good.”
“You look sexy.”
“If I weren’t married ...”
Those were just a handful of comments that have been directed at state Sen. Mia McLeod over the years by current and former lawmakers, the Richland Democrat — one of only four women in the 46-member Senate — told The State.
“If I shared publicly some of the comments made about me and to me, I could have done that every day,” said McLeod, a former House member and lobbyist. “You get to the point where, sadly, you come to expect it.”
It is unclear how much sexual harassment takes place each year at the State House.
Lucas’ office would not disclose the number of complaints his office has received since he became House speaker in December 2014. The complaints are considered personnel matters, his office said.
Meanwhile, Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett said the capitol’s upper chamber has received no complaints.
But when a Legislature is dominated by men, “it would be off” to not have any instances of inappropriate behavior, McLeod said.
“It’s just something, we as women, have to choose to confront on a regular basis and how we confront it,” McLeod said.
Have you experienced sexual harassment at the State House?Write or call Maayan Schechter, (803) 771-8657, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Avery G. Wilks, (803) 771-8362, email@example.com. Your call and email will remain confidential.
‘It shouldn’t be tolerated
Female lawmakers who spoke with The State said they think they have their male colleagues’ respect.
“I do feel that women are treated with respect,” said state Rep. Raye Felder, the York County Republican who chairs the women’s caucus in the Legislature. “Again, I know there have been instances that have made the front pages, but I do think, on a very serious note, that we’re all treated equally.”
Freshman House Reps. Katie Arrington, R-Charleston, and Sylleste Davis, R-Berkeley, said they, too, have found camaraderie amongst their male colleagues in the Legislature.
“I don’t see any barriers,” said Arrington, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, for the 1st District seat in Congress. “I don’t let myself ever feel intimidated by anyone else. I’m a strong woman, and I’m very centered on who I am.”
If their male peers ever crossed the line, those legislators say they would not hesitate to bring it to the eyes of State House leadership.
“It shouldn’t be tolerated,” said Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Richland. “There’s a growing effort to make sure it’s not tolerated.”
But there always will be men who do not want women in any business, said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, the first GOP woman to chair a state Senate committee. “There will always be that attitude.”
Still, several female lawmakers privately said they are keenly aware of the unwanted attention that young, mostly college-age female pages — who work directly for state lawmakers providing administrative help — draw. As a result, the women legislators said they make sure to watch over the young pages.
It could be a “maternal thing,” one legislator said, or just a conscious effort to show them how the General Assembly should operate.
“I don’t want any of them to come into that environment and think that’s the norm,” McLeod said.
‘A tremendous risk’
The S.C. legislators praised the many women who have spoken out in the last few months about years of sexual harassment and assault by famous men, including Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein and longtime political analyst Mark Halperin.
Sexual harassment is as much about power as it is about sex, according to Patrick Wright, director for the Center for Executive Succession at the University of South Carolina’s business school.
“They’re using that power as a means to get that person to do what they want them to do,” said Wright, who teaches human resources.
Sexual harassment likely goes under-reported by female lawmakers, State House staffers and pages, who fear alienation from their powerful male colleagues, according to Wright.
“If you report it and can’t prove it and nothing happens, it almost ends your career,” Wright said. “There’s a tremendous risk in coming forward to report things unless you know for a fact that it’s going to be investigated, it’s going to be proven and that individual is going to be disciplined.”
Even then, reporting sexual harassment is risky, he said.
“Now, you’re known as the tattle-tale or somebody who can’t be trusted. Even under the best-case scenario ... you may still have a tarnished reputation.”
Organizations committed to cracking down on harassment start by writing policies stating that it is wrong, training employees to identify it, encouraging victims or witnesses of harassment to come forward, and taking strong action against harassers, Wright said.
House Speaker Lucas’ office – and many of his fellow House members – say that is exactly what the Darlington Republican has done.
Within a year of becoming speaker, Lucas directed outside legal experts to draft a tougher anti-harassment policy for each House member to follow.
Among other things, House Clerk Charles Reid said, that policy removed barriers to reporting harassment by giving victims more officials they can come to with complaints. At orientation for new House members, freshman legislators are given a 45-minute talk on harassment and how to avoid it, Reid said.
In a written statement, Lucas said any harassment complaints that come to him are “immediately and thoroughly investigated by outside counsel to prohibit bias or personal favor from interfering with the investigation’s findings.” He added his office takes the “proper course of action” to protect the victim and punish the perpetrator.
“The House understands that I maintain zero tolerance for any kind of harassment,” Lucas wrote. “Members hold great respect for the privilege their constituents have bestowed upon them and recognize that harassment of any kind jeopardizes their ability to serve in the South Carolina House of Representatives.”
The Senate, however, has no written sexual harassment policy. Efforts to reach Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman’s office for comment were unsuccessful.
‘You’ve got to be tough’
Outside of stories that have become headlines, some S.C. lawmakers said they are not aware of any recent sexual harassment cases in the Legislature.
“I keep thinking we’ve gotten to a point where there’s no harassment left,” said state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster. “I hope I’m right.”
Still some lawmakers said they are cautious about their surroundings.
“I’m always on guard, very attentive to the environment and what may be going on around me,” said state Rep. Chandra Dillard, D-Greenville.
Some noted a lack of complaints doesn’t prove the State House is harassment-free.
Thayer, for instance, chose not to report the assault on her about five years ago to House leadership or law enforcement.
It was a one-time occurrence that she chose to handle herself, she said.
“It happened. I handled it,” Thayer said. “You got to be tough to be down here.”