Former U.S. Rep. Katie Hill, a Democrat from California, resigned this week amid personal scandal. Few women in America can understand what she is going through.
I am one of those women.
On Dec. 15, 2011, I was racing home from St. Paul as four of my fellow Republican state senators, all male, held a news conference. I called my sister to ask her to meet my 15-year-old daughter at the bus stop. I wasn’t sure whether media would be waiting at home. I walked into the living room to find my daughter slumped on the sofa, tears running down her face. She asked just one question: “Why?”
I was given no warning about the news conference that would change the trajectory of my life. The subject of the news conference was my extramarital affair with our caucus communications director. In what was later dubbed “The Scarlet Letter Award Ceremony,” excruciating details were discussed about my personal life. No evidence was provided, but that didn’t matter.
The men had called me to a meeting under false pretenses a few days earlier. They made accusations. One senator stated clearly that I was to resign as the state’s first ever female majority leader, or they would take the allegations public. I was informed I was not allowed to leave until I resigned — so I did.
There were no complaints filed in connection with these events, no misuse of campaign funds, no lurid photos, no laws broken.
Following the news conference, with a year still left in my term, I was made to move to an office far from other senators, on a different floor. I spent that final year as a pariah, a ghost in the halls of the State Capitol.
I would also pack my things and leave the home I had shared with my husband of 18 years to move into my parents’ basement. Weeks later, my 64-year-old mother would die of breast cancer, just a few months after her diagnosis.
I didn’t go to the local supermarket, gym or attend mass at the church where I had been a member since grade school.
The destruction of my career and my life seemed complete. The shame I felt was overwhelming. In the months that followed I read books on political scandals, studying who survived and why. I was looking for a path to redemption. Not for my political career, but a scrap of hope that would help me leave my bed in the morning, look my daughter in the eye, and assure my mom, before she died, that I was going to be all right.
I read about previous political sex scandals: Bill Clinton, John Edwards and David Vitter. But nowhere could I find someone to relate to, a woman in power brought down by a scandal. I had broken through a glass floor and found myself alone at the bottom.
Since 2011, I have watched women achieve great things in politics. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was the first female presidential candidate on a major party ticket, and currently we have a record number of women running for president. The 2018 elections saw a record number of female candidates and a historic number elected to Congress. Some of these same women are now finding themselves embroiled in a very public examination of their personal lives.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, from Minneapolis, is currently in divorce proceedings and facing allegations of an affair with an employee of her campaign. Hill stepped down this week over the release of personal photos and accusations of affairs with multiple staffers.
I don’t know their stories. I’ve never met Hill, and I’ve only had one conversation with Omar. But I don’t need the details to understand their experience.
I’ve been asked so many times whether I felt that what happened to me was because I am a woman. No woman wants to answer that question, so I avoided it. I did not want to be a victim or appear whiny. I did not want to cause trouble for my fellow legislators and caucus. But the answer, of course, is yes.
The Minnesota Senate is no different from any other state legislature or Congress. Women have a higher bar to clear on their way to election and leadership. It stands to reason we would receive harsher judgment in failure. This predates the #MeToo movement, through which we’ve learned so many details about the deeds of men in power.
The answer is obvious but the solution is very complicated. I feel deep frustration when I am recruiting political candidates, and hear someone ask how a woman candidate with younger children could possibly manage serving with a family. Never, not once, have I heard this discussion around a male candidate with a young family.
Bias is often not malicious, only pervasive and ingrained.
When I was 8 years old, I told my parents I was going to be the first woman president of the United States. I dressed as the president for career day in a polyester suit sporting a homemade campaign button. At 48, I am content to work in politics and cheer on other women as they smash through barriers. Even when I don’t agree with candidates politically, I recognize the extra tenacity it took to make that leap. I vote for candidates not based on gender, but on merits, and I am quick to call out any B.S. bias when I hear it.
I share my story after all these years to add another layer to the discussion. I did have an extramarital affair with a staffer. That was wrong, and I am grateful for the forgiveness I received from my ex-husband, family and my daughter. More women in leadership means, inevitably, more prominent human failure among women leaders.
It comes down to this: Women in politics should be allowed to rise on their merits, no different from men. Likewise, when it comes to transgressions, men should be treated equally to women. Let us judge actions and mete out punishments accordingly.
Amy Koch, of St. Paul, is a political strategist and commentator and former Republican Minnesota Senate majority leader.