Few female legislators in Kansas indicate they’ve experienced harassment, but that doesn’t surprise experts

The Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

? In response to recent reports alleging sexual harassment of legislative staff and interns in the Kansas Statehouse, Senate President Susan Wagle announced last week that she has invited the Kansas City-based Women’s Foundation to review the Legislature’s policy on sexual harassment and make recommendations for any changes or updates that may be needed.

At the same time, though, Wagle herself seemed surprised by the allegations, saying that if they had been brought to her attention in the first place that she would have put a stop to it.

One reason why Wagle might have been unaware of any problem, however, is that female legislators in Kansas largely do not experience — or do not acknowledge experiencing — sexual harassment from male lawmakers, lobbyists or other state officials, at least according to an informal survey conducted by the Journal-World.

Shortly after the first allegation by a legislative staff member was reported in the media, the Journal-World emailed all 45 women currently serving in the Legislature, asking them to say, anonymously, whether they had ever experienced inappropriate comments, sexual advances, physical assault or offers of political favors in exchange for sex from another legislator, lobbyist or other state official.

Of those, only 13 responded, for a 29 percent response rate. And of those 13, all but one said they had never experienced any kind of sexual harassment while serving in the Statehouse. One, however, said she had experienced all forms of harassment asked about in the survey, including assault.

That person declined to provide further details of those incidents, saying that doing so could subject her to further danger.

Those results weren’t surprising to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University, who said sexual harassment usually isn’t about sex; it’s about power.

“It may be also about sex, but it’s about power,” she said. “These are men who are asserting their power over women who are less powerful. And when you have a situation where this is a peer, it is harder. You’re sort of afforded a certain amount of respect when you are a peer, as opposed to when you’re in the position of power and you’re talking about an intern, or a staff person, or a lobbyist. Those folks don’t have the power. It is the male legislator who has the power.”

Most of the allegations that have come forward in Kansas concern legislative staff members such as Abbie Hodgson, a former chief of staff in the House minority leader’s office when Rep. Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City, held that position.

Hodgson was quoted recently in The Hill as saying sexual harassment was “rampant” in the Kansas Statehouse and that she herself had experienced it on a routine basis.

She also alleged that female college-age interns were routinely called after hours to serve as designated drivers for inebriated male legislators.

But University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis, who has managed the Statehouse intern program for 30 years, said in a telephone interview that in all that time he had never received a single report or complaint of harassment from a female intern.

“All I can say is, I’ve never had a complaint,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t know that in a male-dominated, power-oriented institution that there wouldn’t be occasions when it might have happened and probably did happen.”

Loomis went on to say that the political culture in Topeka is vastly different from other state capitols where sexual harassment is more common, most notably in Missouri.

“There’s a lot more alcohol there. There’s alcohol in the capitol there,” Loomis said. “There are no limits on contributions. You just have a much more wild-west situation in Missouri than in Kansas.”

Indeed sexual harassment has been a common occurrence in the Missouri Statehouse for years. In 2015, then-House Speaker John Diehl, a St. Louis Republican, was forced to resign amid reports that he had exchanged sexually explicit text messages with a 19-year-old intern.

On Oct. 22, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that she had experienced blatant sexual harassment as a young state legislator in Jefferson City.

“I was a very young state legislator and in my 20s and I was single. And I was nervous about getting my first bill out of committee,” she said. “So I cautiously approached the very powerful speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives. Did he have any advice for me on how I could get it out of committee? And he looked at me and he paused and he said, ‘Well, did you bring your knee pads?'”

Kansas State Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, said she has not experienced any form of sexual harassment in the 13 years that she has served in the Legislature. But she said she was glad that Wagle had invited the Women’s Foundation to conduct a review.

She also said she was not surprised that harassment is more commonly committed against interns and aides rather than female lawmakers.

“You have to take it outside the realm of just the Kansas Legislature. I think that’s societal,” she said. “And yes, I think the power positions and lack-of-power positions. Sometimes they’re related to gender, sometimes not. But I would agree that sexual harassment is never about sex. It is about power, just like rape.”

Of the 165 members of the Kansas Legislature, 120, or about 73 percent, are male.