Iowa event keeps the momentum

We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. Those words were spoken this week by Sen. Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican, retired Air Force colonel and the first female combat mission fighter pilot, as she revealed she was ‘preyed upon and raped” by a superior officer while serving in the military.

“So, like you, I also am a military sexual assault survivor, but unlike so many brave survivors, I didn’t report being sexually assaulted. Like so many women and men, I didn’t trust the system at the time,” McSally said at a subcommittee hearing on military sexual assault Wednesday.

McSally also revealed, during the 2018 campaign, that she had been sexually abused by a high school coach when she was teenager.

Such revelations of sexual misconduct, inside or outside military channels, are not the first heard by members of Congress. This past January, for instance, Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, reluctantly revealed she had been raped while a student at Iowa State University. Like McSally, Ernst did not report the crime.

“The reason I tell my story,” said U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, ‘is to create space and dignity for survivors to let them know they that they are seen, that they are not alone, and that I am going to be vigilant in this moment for their healing and justice.”

But it is important to remember that just a few years ago, in 2005, when Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins first questioned a top Army official about the issue of sexual misconduct in the military, her public inquiry as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee was largely dismissed as a nuisance. California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer began working on the issue in 1992, when only seven women served in the 100-member body.

As former Rep. Pat Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat who worked with Boxer in the 1980s when both served on the armed services committees noted, “An institution really changes when you have a critical mass of women.”

And while sexual misconduct, now public-facing via the #MeToo and #MeTooMilitary movements, is the most visible of the changes, discussions about sexual assault are only one of many ways the influx of women into politics has changed the national and state discourse on issues ranging from domestic violence to education to child care.

Event banner created by the League of Women Voters of Iowa and 50-50 in 2020 for their upcoming seminar for women interested in running for public office, "See Yourself Here."
Event banner created by the League of Women Voters of Iowa and 50-50 in 2020 for their upcoming seminar for women interested in running for public office, “See Yourself Here.”

It’s a large reason why two former female Iowa Senators – Maggie Tinsman, a Republican from the Quad Cities area, and Jean Lloyd-Jones, a Democrat from the Iowa City area – founded the 50-50 in 2020 organization to bring more women into all levels of public office. This week they’ll partner with the League of Women Voters to once again offer a seminar in Des Moines that encourages Iowa women to “See Yourself Here.”

As part of a process to ‘demystify” the Statehouse and state leaders, participants will observe the Legislative session, meet with elected officials and nonpartisan staff, and explore the facility and grounds.

Women, including Iowa women, like McSally said, have come a long way, but there is more work to do.

Opportunities like ‘See Yourself Here” are how we keep going.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on March 9, 2019.