It Took Pelosi Three Tries to Get Her Harassment Statement Right

What the minority leader’s awkward messaging efforts reveal about Washington's readiness to take on allegations of impropriety

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and moderator Chuck Todd appear on "Meet the Press" in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and moderator Chuck Todd appear on Meet the Press in Washington, D.C., Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017. (William B. Plowman / NBC)

On Monday evening, Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the House of Representatives, sent out a statement regarding the recent allegations of sexual misconduct against Rep. John Conyers. “This afternoon,” it read, “I spoke with Melanie Sloan who worked for Congressman Conyers on the Judiciary Committee in the mid-1990s. Ms. Sloan told me that she had publicly discussed distressing experiences while on his staff. I find the behavior Ms. Sloan described unacceptable and disappointing. I believe what Ms. Sloan has told me.”

The statement, which went on to bemoan the fact that one of Conyers’s accusers “cannot speak publicly because of the secretive settlement process in place,” was a marked course correction: On Sunday, during an appearance on Meet the Press, Pelosi had defended Conyers as an icon—a fact his accusers are not contesting—and had also, in response to Chuck Todd’s question about whether she believed the women accusing Conyers, replied, “I don’t know who they are. Do you? They have not really come forward.”

It was a surprisingly tone-deaf response for a politician who is not only a veteran of Meet the Press, and who thus had to expect that a question like this would be coming, but also for someone who has previously—and validly—celebrated herself and her fellow women in Congress for breaking the “marble ceiling.” Pelosi was, by valorizing her colleague and dismissing the women making accusations against him, aligning herself with a longstanding instinct to mistrust women who come forward to share their experiences and disrupt the status quo. She was aligning herself, more broadly, with those who have defended Senator Al Franken—Franken himself has apologized for sexual impropriety—via suggestions that his first accuser, Leeann Tweeden, had political motivations in sharing that infamous photo. Pelosi was also aligning herself with the defenders of Roy Moore, some of whom have suggested—baselessly—that his accusers were paid by The Washington Post as part of a vast left-wing conspiracy.

And: Pelosi was aligning herself with President Trump, who has said, in his own words and via those of his press secretary, that the 16 women who have come forward to accuse him of sexual impropriety have each been lying. And who has recently been spreading the idea that the Access Hollywood tape that emerged in 2016—a recording for which Trump quickly apologized when the tape was released—are, in fact, fake. Somehow.

Pelosi and her team quickly realized the misstep, and on Sunday afternoon, moved to correct it. Pelosi released a statement that read, in part:

As a woman and mother of four daughters, I particularly take any accusation of sexual harassment very seriously. Any credible accusation must be reviewed by the Ethics Committee expeditiously. We are at a watershed moment on this issue, and no matter how great an individual’s legacy, it is not a license for harassment. I commend the brave women coming forward.

So, all in all: initial comment, “brave women” comment, the results of the conversation Pelosi had with one of those brave women. Taken together, the statements offer a striking, and revealing, arc: that initial impulse, in response to Todd’s question on Meet the Press, to close ranks, to question the women making accusations—the instinct, essentially, for power to defend power. The next step to course-correct, and to commend the women who come forward to share their stories. And then, finally—I believe what Ms. Sloan has told me and that ridiculous system must be ended and victims who want to come forward to the Ethics Committee must be able to do so—to focus on the systems that make it so difficult for women to come forward in the first place.

It was a good, and productive, place to land. One of the many tragedies of harassment cases, after all, is that accusers’ silence and perpetrators’ innocence are often equated with each other. Why didn’t she come forward when it happened? the doubters often chorus. Why now? The answer is, often, that the “she” in question knew exactly what would greet her were she to go public: excoriation, suspicion, character assassination. The powerful refusing to make space for the less powerful. Pelosi’s initial reaction to Chuck Todd’s question was in that sense a frank reminder of all that has been endured by Anita Hill, by Juanita Broaddrick, by Leigh Corfman, by every other woman who has come forward to share her story and who has been, rather than commended for her bravery, punished for it. As Deanna Maher, who on Tuesday came forward to make on-the-record allegations of harassment against Conyers, explained of her decision not to share her story sooner: “I didn’t report the harassment because it was clear nobody wanted to take it seriously.” She added: “John Conyers is a powerful man in Washington, and nobody wanted to cross him.”

Conyers denies the allegations, writing on Sunday in a letter to Pelosi, after stepping aside as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee while the ethics investigation is ongoing, that “I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family before the House Committee on Ethics.”

Another of the tragedies of harassment cases is that sexual impropriety and abuse tend, by their nature, to take place in the shadows, with very little evidence to go by save for one person’s word against another’s. Harassers and abusers have long weaponized this fact, and they have done it so effectively that “he said, she said” has become, at this point, a shorthand for thrown-up hands, hung juries, legal impunities. One person’s word against another’s, the logic goes: The two cancel each other out. Never mind that, per one recent estimate, only 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations end up being false. Never mind the flood of allegations of harassment, in this #MeToo moment, that have proven to be true.

Never mind, on Sunday, any of that. Even Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as the speaker of the House, revealed an instinct to doubt the women. Even she questioned, disavowed, protested. Pelosi’s commentary on Meet the Press, as Vox’s Laura McGann argued, was suggestive of Madeleine Albright’s long-established (and occasionally controversial) maxim that there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women. “Whatever happens next,” McGann wrote on Sunday, “today Pelosi is that woman.”

As it happens, I recently spoke with Albright about that famous line. At an event at the National Portrait Gallery—to celebrate Albright’s win, along with four other honorees, of the Portrait of a Nation Prize for her contributions to American history and culture—Albright and I discussed that line in light of #MeToo. “I came up with that statement because of experience in my own life,” the former Secretary of State—the first woman to hold that position—said, “when I found that women were too judgmental of each other and how are we doing.” She added that the line, itself, is about systems:

I think if you’re the only woman in a room—I say this often when I speak, and I always get nodding heads—is that everybody has been in a meeting, every woman, where she’s the only woman—and you think, ‘Well, I won’t talk today because somebody will think it’s stupid.’ And then some man says what you were going to say, and everybody thinks it’s brilliant, and you’re really mad at yourself.

And if there were another woman in the room, I could say, ‘As Megan said,’ instead of somebody saying, ‘As Joe said.’

What Albright was suggesting is shine theory, basically, applied to government: the kind of thing women in the Obama administration did, to amplify each others’ voices. The kind of thing women in many fields are doing to help each other and have each others’ backs. The kind of thing that requires multiple women, at multiple levels of power, to be most effective. And the kind of thing, Albright added, that should be happening across the American government. “I think also, now, if there were more women at all levels of elected offices,” she said, “and they were able to speak out in Congress and state legislatures, it would really be an important way to help with the #MeToo movement.”

It certainly would. For it to be most effective, though, instincts and impulses—of individuals, and of the culture at large—matter. Those first responses to allegations of harassment set the tone for everything else. They are the id; the stuff of the ego and the superego come later. “John Conyers is an icon in our country,” Pelosi said, going on to cite his work in the Violence Against Women Act, implying that the achievement might somehow mitigate the allegation—that work done on behalf of women at large might somehow have a bearing on allegations made by particular women. Abuse of power, though, is abuse of power; if Conyers is found guilty of harassment, that will be its own finding, independent of everything else. And so Pelosi, in her triple-step journey, acted as a representative in the most direct sense of the term. All too often, after all, just as her Meet the Press line suggested, people’s impulse is not to trust the women, but rather to doubt them. To explain away allegations as “just what men do” or “just the way he is.” To point out the greatness of the person being accused.

Another person who knows that all too well: Anita Hill, who, in her televised testimony against then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, was reminded in the cruelest way of what women—women of color, in particular—face when they dare to make allegations against powerful men. On Sunday, as it happened, Hill appeared on the same episode of Meet the Press that hosted Nancy Pelosi. And the law professor was, understandably, not terribly optimistic about #MeToo’s ability to move through the corridors of government. “Unfortunately,” Hill said, “26 years ago, Washington wasn’t ready to lead on this issue, and I’m afraid even today Washington cannot lead the country on this issue.” She added: “There seems to be so many conflicted feelings and understandings about what needs to happen when sexual misconduct occurs.”