In the perpetual cycle of exposés about power-wielding men who have harassed and abused women, the words “open secret” have appeared repeatedly: of course people in these industries knew which powerful men to avoid, they just didn’t exactly do anything about it. According to a new CNN report in which more than 50 people describe sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, this seems to be the case in Washington, too. And, based on numerous accounts over the past few decades, women have been whispering to one another to avoid one place in particular: the elevators.
“In conversations with CNN, multiple women pointed to the elevators on Capitol Hill as a place where staff and members prey on women and say they have been advised to avoid riding alone with men if possible,” the article reads, which goes on to detail one specific account by a former Senate staffer who a few years back found herself in a “members only” elevator with her boss and another senator, both of whom are still in office.
When she leaned in to shake that senator’s hand, he stroked the inside of her palm “in a really gross, suggestive way” — a gesture that was completely invisible to her boss. The ex-staffer said she was rattled and “felt very yucky.” She was also shaken by how brazen the senator was to do this with his colleague standing right next to them.
The woman, who declined to be named or reveal the senator’s identity, told CNN that she avoided that lawmaker from that day on. She also never told her then-boss about it — she was embarrassed and nervous to make it an issue, she said, and simply “took it for the gross moment that it was.”
“Nothing about it felt right,” she said.
Of course, this isn’t an isolated experience. What is perhaps the most infamous incident of harassment inside Capitol Hill elevators occurred in 1993 when South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond tried to fondle Washington Democrat Patty Murray’s breast. “So notoriously predatory was Thurmond that when Susan Collins came to the Senate in 1997, she was warned to avoid getting on an elevator alone with him,” a 2006 New York Times article reads. Since then, anecdotes about predatory behavior in elevators have received brief mentions in various reports.
In a recent Politico story, Travis Moore, a former legislative director for retired Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, recalled that “while he worked on the Hill, female friends would often share ‘rumblings about members of Congress in elevators saying inappropriate things.’” Another Politico story from earlier this month focuses on the actions of Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Latvala, who has been accused of sexual harassment and groping, some of which occurred in the elevator.
During a busy pre-session committee week, a staffer said she crammed into a crowded Senate elevator and ended up standing against the same wall as Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Latvala. After he blurted a boisterous ‘good morning,’ Latvala, she said, began touching her.
“He reached around the far side of my body and just started grabbing. His hand went around my back and grabbed me around my lower frontal abdomen and then wandered,” she said. “He touched the underside of my breast on that side.”
While this predatory conduct doesn’t just happen behind closed elevator doors, it’s been so rampant there that women seem to avoid elevators altogether — and not just on Capitol Hill. Years after leaving her job in Congress, one woman told CNN that even to this day, she still “feels anxious about being alone in elevators with men.”