The resignation of a female Democratic congresswoman over a consensual, sexual relationship with a campaign aide has sparked questions about whether women are held to higher standards in public life.
At the center of the controversy is Katie Hill, a first-term lawmaker from California and a rising Democratic Party star. In a video released Monday, Hill said she was stepping down because she was “fearful of what might come next” following the online publication of explicit pictures that outed her relationship with a female staffer.
Sex scandals are nothing new in national politics and have mostly centered on men, some of whom have weathered the controversy and gone on to have successful careers. One of Hill’s congressional colleagues, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, is running for reelection despite being charged with using campaign funds to finance romantic flings with lobbyists and congressional aides.
That’s prompted some to question why Democrats supported Hill’s resignation.
“Some of her behavior, if a man did it, we would say it was wrong and inappropriate. But she is being held to a different standard,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Hill acknowledged the relationship with the campaign aide after private photos of her with the woman were posted online, first by a conservative website. Hill said the relationship was consensual and blamed her estranged husband for revealing the information. Hill and her husband are in the midst of an acrimonious divorce.
Hill has denied another allegation that she was having an affair with a male congressional adviser, a relationship that would have run afoul of House rules put in place last year that ban any relationship between lawmakers and staff. Those rules were enacted following a string of misconduct allegations involving male colleagues.
The House opened an ethics investigation into the allegations about Hill, but the California Democrat announced her resignation within days of the committee launching the probe.
House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who had tapped Hill for a coveted leadership post after she unseated a Republican in the suburban Los Angeles swing district, called her continued service “untenable.”
“We must ensure a climate of integrity and dignity in the Congress, and in all workplaces,” Pelosi said Sunday in a statement.
Hill’s defenders say she is the victim in this situation, given the publication of private photos that exposed her relationship.
“She’s under attack by a vengeful ex and an opportunistic media, and a society that … is all too eager for a woman to be taken down, and quote-unquote “#MeToo-ed,” said New York lawyer Carrie Goldberg, who often represents victims of such attacks. “This is not a #MeToo situation.”
The #MeToo movement felled a half-dozen lawmakers last year for a range of offenses. But not all who faced misconduct allegations resigned from office.
Hunter, a San Diego Republican, resisted calls to resign even after his indictment, which he calls politically motivated. Former Nevada Democratic congressman Ruben Kihuen served out his first term despite a 2018 ethics probe that upheld three credible reports of sexual harassment. He ran unsuccessfully this year for a Las Vegas City Council seat.
Tiffany Barnes, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky, said her research has shown that certain voters are more critical of women involved in sex scandals. Those who hold “hostile sexist attitudes,” and believe women have progressed too far in society, are less likely to reelect a female candidate following a sex scandal than a man, her 2014 research found.
“It’s kind of a backlash effect,” Barnes said Monday.
Hill’s situation also raises questions about what the future holds in an era where more people who came of age in the iPhone era are being elected to political office.
“The future has to be more accepting,” Goldberg said. “We’re going to be without politicians if we become so prudish about their sexuality becoming public.”
Hill, describing herself as the “imperfect” daughter of a nurse and a police officer, expressed that very fear Monday as she vowed to fight the growing tide of online harassment against women. She is divorcing Kenneth Heslep, who in court papers described himself as a house husband being rejected by an ambitious wife. His lawyer did not immediately return a call for comment Monday.
“I will not allow my experience to scare off other young women or girls from running for office,” Hill said in the video. “We cannot let that happen.”