but Senator, you just don’t get it

Harriett was running down the hall, late for the luncheon with Senator Simpson. As she ran, she called over her shoulder, “someone canceled, do you want to come along?”

Did I?

I’d been working for Harriett Woods, former Lieutenant Governor of Missouri, at the National Women’s Political Caucus for just under a year. My most recent project was organizing luncheons with leaders of women’s organizations and each individual member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This was just immediately following the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Of course I wanted to “come along!”

After passing through the metal detectors of the Senate building, I had to run to keep up with Harriett’s long leg strides. When we entered the private dining room, the architecture and decor seemed ancient and powerful. Two or three of the women’s group leaders had already arrived and were seated at the heavy wooden table that filled the small, bright, high-ceilinged room.

We took our seats and I sat, not speaking, just listening to Harriett make lovely appropriate small talk with the other women. No one spoke about what they were all there for: the topic was “discussing women’s perspectives on the Hill/Thomas hearings.” I was in shock. Here I was, 21 years old, sitting in a private dining room of the Senate with leaders of some of the most influential womens’ organizations in Washington, DC — we were all there together waiting for Senator Alan Simpson.

Senator Simpson, the vocal Judiciary Committee member from Wyoming.

After about ten minutes, the door behind us opened. The tallest man I’ve ever seen in my life limbered in followed by an elegant (and also tall) woman.

The Senator took a seat at the tremendous table. He took a seat directly across the table from me.

The woman who was with him, his wife Ann, sat at the head of the table on the other side of the room.

The Senate dining staff began serving our lunch as the polite and amiable chit-chat continued.

Again, there was no mention of what the participants were all there to discuss and I found the omission made the conversation shallow and stilted — though I see now how it was all about manners, protocol and style.

Finally, as I evaluated the fruit cup (yet another food item I couldn’t possibly eat with my stomach so full of butterflies), Harriett said something like, “Shall we get started?” Something like that. She crafted such an eloquent but simple statement, I wish I could recall the exact words.

She made her point: it was time to move beyond the small talk.

Then the Senator then took the lead.

He began speaking of Anita Hill and how she had perjured herself. I don’t know how long the Senator spoke, as I was still in shock, but I do remember distinctly that he mentioned the “corrupting effect of this rock and roll” — my jaw almost dropped onto the floor when he actually said that.

As the Senator spoke, I ground my fingernails into my palms to keep myself from speaking. The thoughts were a hurricane in my brain and I was afraid I would burst out in some verbal explosion of frustration.

He was missing the point, and no one was saying anything to him about it!

Were we going to sit there and listen to him slamming Anita Hill and just sit mute? Would all these nice manners continue and block any real communication about the frustrations of the issues of real sexual harassment in the workplace and the lack of women in the Senate?

At one point a sort of squawking noise escaped from my mouth.

My fingernails were almost through the skin on my palms.

I looked, pleadingly at Harriett after I made the sound and I said to her, “could… could I say something?”

And Harriett, the strong, impressive and grand woman announced to the shocked looking table members with her arms waving about, “Yes! Yes! My assistant, Heather, would like to say something!”

My hands relaxed in my lap.

I started to speak with a quivering and timid voice.

I said, “Senator, I understand that you think Anita Hill perjured herself. But, I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is, there were no women up there on the Judiciary Committee, so no one could possibly know what she had gone through if she had been telling the truth.”

The Senator was just staring at me.

After I finished speaking I’m not sure if I even took a breath of air.

The Senator took a bite of his fruit cup and his head began to nod.

He chewed and said, “Hmmm…well, I never thought about it that way.”

I recognized even then that he was being kind and diplomatic — though I will always hope my words might’ve reached him.

I continued shaking and shivering throughout the rest of the luncheon. I have no recollection of any other words that were exchanged in the meeting. I just remember when it seemed it was time to go.

The Senator raised himself slowly from his chair, and the rest of us followed.

When all of the thank-you’s and good-bye’s were being exchanged came one of the most remarkable interactions of the whole experience.

Mrs. Simpson came over to me with her hand extended.

She introduced herself to me, and I introduced myself to her. She continued shaking my hand and looked deep into my eyes and said, “You keep on going,” and gave my hand an extra tight squeeze.

In the cab on the ride home, Harriett said to me, “I hope you’re writing about all of this.” That was eight years ago, and at the time I wasn’t. The experience, however, isn’t one I will ever forget. Each time I revisit the memory I’m energized by Mrs. Simpson’s words and I do “keep on going.”

1 Comment

Filed under activism, my life story

One response to “but Senator, you just don’t get it

  1. Pingback: Heather Denkmire (part 1) | Doing Good Better

I would love to hear from you (leave a reply?)...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s