How far has culture of sexism at Iowa Statehouse spread?

Been thinking there must be some deeply rooted cultural phenomenon that led Iowa lawmakers to propose — and, unfortunately, pass — bills that negatively impact women? Turns out, you’re right.

A recent court case, brought by a former Iowa Senate Republican Caucus staffer, reveals the ugly details of sexual harassment at the Capitol complex in Des Moines. Charges by Kirsten Anderson, who was the communications director for the GOP caucus for five years, were confirmed in court testimony by other staffers, some of whom continue to work in the harassing and juvenile environment.

One described an incident from more than 20 years ago, when she came back from lunch only to discover her computer’s screen saver had been changed to a topless woman jumping on a trampoline to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” She also described an exchange with Sen. Paul McKinley when she was exiting the building while he was entering. The senator’s eyes took in the staffer’s chest before he commented on her “nice green sweater.”

Despite formal complaints to supervisors, a sexualized culture of commenting on women’s breasts (and other body parts) continued — as did political retaliation against those who dared to complain. Anderson’s firing took place seven hours after she submitted a memo documenting harassment.

Court officials were told that current and past Iowa lawmakers loudly and often offered assessments of women from the chamber floor, rating and ranking them in terms of their bodies. Other comments were directed at teenage girls serving as legislative pages, with lawmakers openly admiring the length of their skirt hems.

Former Sen. Shawn Hamerlinck, according to one male staffer, made hand gestures and asked a female employee how big her areolas were.

Participants in the Iowa Women’s March gather on the steps of the State Capitol in Des Moines on January 21, 2017.
Participants in the Iowa Women’s March gather on the steps of the State Capitol in Des Moines on January 21, 2017. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

Inappropriate and belittling incidents “were so many that it’s hard to recall too many of the particulars,” the court learned from a different male staffer who confirmed sexual and racist remarks were made. To date, not one of this man’s superiors or Senate leaders have made inquiries about the incidents he witnessed or the complaints they spawned, he said.

Some testimony is so graphic news reporters have refused to repeat it.

The good news is that Anderson has won her court battle to the tune of roughly $2.2 million — a million more than what she and her legal team sought. The bad news is that taxpayers, not the perpetrators, will foot the bill.

“I am disappointed in the verdict,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix said in a statement. “Kirsten Anderson was terminated only for her poor work product and absolutely no other reason.

“During my leadership of the Senate Republican Caucus, harassment and inappropriate behavior was addressed immediately and effectively, and it will continue to be addressed in that manner in the future. The Senate Republican Caucus is now a safe environment, and there is tolerance for any and all types of harassment.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds, who served in the Senate during Anderson’s tenure, told reporters she was unaware of inappropriate behavior, and that any remedies are the responsibility of the Legislature. Her statement following the verdict: “We always have to be vigilant to ensure harassment doesn’t happen in the workplace. It is unacceptable.”

The state does have the option to appeal, but as of this writing, none had been filed.

Personnel guidelines established in 2013, after Anderson’s wrongful termination and previous complaints became public, appear to have had little effect on the antics. Court testimony revealed the new guidelines are often, just like the women they’re designed to protect, dismissed as a joke.


Bills debated in the past legislative session drew the ire of Iowa women, regardless of party. Few, however, rose to the level of a Republican proposal that wanted adult women seeking abortion services to obtain permission from their husbands or fathers. Even the cultural lightning rod of abortion couldn’t stymie the female outrage, and with good reason. No matter how benevolently wrapped, the proposal was sexist.

Not only would it have turned back state law for women to pre-territorial times when women were considered the property of their husbands and fathers, it would have made clear that women, as less capable beings, required the guidance of men.

The proposal, thank goodness, did not find favor among the majority. But consider: At least one lawmaker believed this was a good idea.

While it might have been easy six months ago to write it off as “crazy talk,” a minority opinion that should have never found its way to the legislative billbook, court testimony provides a cringe-worthy picture of how prevalent such views are at the Iowa Statehouse.

There’s a reason, when something becomes commonplace, that society refers to it as a culture. Just like bacteria in a petri dish, attitudes multiply and spread in the right environment. Dominant social norms in the Iowa Statehouse, a direct result of leadership, were to dismiss, joke about and, at a minimum, tacitly condone sexual and racial harassment — and such displays weren’t limited to the water cooler.

The attitudes were expressed, explicitly and implicitly, by those tasked with creating equitable business opportunities, deciding education policies and, yes, funding family planning services. We can no longer declare with any authority that discussions on funding for breast cancer screenings weren’t mentally sidetracked by naughty renditions of “Jingle Bells.”

Despite fully expected but incredibly disappointing denials by state leaders, it’s clear a culture of harassment has decades-long roots at the Statehouse. The question we must be brave enough to answer, even before we begin ripping it out, is how far the culture has spread.

How many policy decisions has it tainted? How many laws were crafted in the spirit of sexism?

Have these unacceptable and indefensible attitudes spread to advocacy groups that frequent the Statehouse, or am I just another “cute douche” for asking?

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on July 23, 2017.