Advocates raise concerns for future of women, LGBTQ candidates after Rep. Katie Hill's resignation

As among the first openly bisexual congresspeople, there may be ripple effects.

October 31, 2019, 3:03 PM

California Rep. Katie Hill's resignation is prompting concerns from advocates about women and LGBTQ people considering running for office or working in politics, a point the congresswoman addressed in her final floor speech on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

"Today I ask you all to stand with me and commit to creating a future where this no longer happens to women and girls. Yes, I'm stepping down, but I refuse to let this experience scare off other women who dare to take risks, who dare to step into this light, who dare to be powerful," she said on the House floor.

Hill, 32, was elected along with a historic wave of women -- many of them younger -- in 2018, becoming among the first openly bisexual congresspeople.

She resigned amid allegations of a relationship with a campaign staffer, for which she apologized, and with a congressional staffer, which she has denied and which was under investigation by the House Ethics Committee. A relationship with a congressional staffer would be a violation under a new rule put in place in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Along with these allegations came an apparently targeted campaign, which Hill claimed stemmed from a bitter divorce battle with her "abusive husband who seems determined to try to humiliate me." A conservative website published intimate photos of Hill, which some have called revenge porn -- a crime where ex-partners share intimate images to shame. The New York Post reported Thursday that Hill hired an attorney who has worked on revenge porn cases.

"I'm leaving because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality, and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching," she said in her Thursday speech.

ABC News has reached out to Hill's husband, but have not received a response.

Democratic Congressional candidate Katie Hill prepares to enter a polling place to vote in California's 25th Congressional district on Nov. 6, 2018 in Agua Dulce, Calif.
Mario Tama/Getty Images, FILE

Elliot Imse, director of communications at the Victory Institute, an organization that supports LGBTQ leaders in government, told ABC News her story "will give further pause to up and coming LGBTQ and women leaders." He said this is especially true of younger people who are more connected to their phones and taking pictures.

"Many young people considering running for office are going to be hesitant to take this leap if these types of attacks are normalized," he said, adding that personal attacks are "weaponized with more effectiveness" against women and LGBTQ people.

"Unfortunately, the experience that Katie Hill is having in terms of harassment and sort of abuse in a sexualized nature is not entirely new to women running for office," Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, told ABC News.

Because of that, Dittmar said, Hill's story in particular may not change the landscape of candidates, but it would be just one more story to add to the list of potential barriers for women considering running for office.

I think the majority of Americans already agree that these types of attacks are morally repugnant. However, that doesn't mean they aren't effective right now.

But, Dittmar said, that doesn't mean the nation will see fewer female candidates. In fact, CAWP put out an analysis Thursday by research associate Claire Gothreau arguing that while Hill's case represents much of the harassment women in politics face, there is "reason for optimism."

In a previous study, Gothreau tested her primary hypothesis that gender-based discrimination has an effect on both political engagement and behavior utilizing data from a sample of 311 women living in the United States

"I find that self-reported gender discrimination and harassment can actually mobilize women to become politically engaged," Gothreau wrote. "More specifically, I find that as experiences with harassment and discrimination increase, so does political efficacy, interest, and propensity to participate in politics."

Dittmar, too, sees space for optimism: "My hope is that this actually raises these issues as serious issues we have to address."

"You can take these moments and say, 'Oh my God I never want to be part of it; I'm gonna leave the institution,' or you can take these moments and say, 'How do we change the institutions for the better?'" she said.

Imse of the Victory Institute said, too, that Hill's case could eventually lead to changes if voters choose to see them as attacks and legislators institute legal changes to protect members and candidates.

"I think the majority of Americans already agree that these types of attacks are morally repugnant. However, that doesn't mean they aren't effective right now," he said. "In the meantime, political leaders across the political spectrum must condemn and reject these types of attacks."

Imse predicts that as more young people enter politics, revenge porn threats will become more regular, and "legislators will have no choice but to take some sort of action."

When it comes to the allegations of relationships with staffers, Dittmar acknowledges that Hill faces "genuine ethical questions around her behavior," but, she said, "Instead of saying, 'Well men haven't lost their positions because of this type of behavior,' if we're really committed to creating a better institution, you say, 'Well men and women should be equally held to this higher standard.'"

Overall, Imse said, "women and LGBTQ people are already severely underrepresented in governments at every level," with LGBT people making up less than 1% of elected officials nationwide, making sexualized harassment an issue that needs to be addressed.

Hill said in her speech Thursday, "The way to overcome this setback is for women to keep showing up, to keep running for office, to keep stepping up as leaders, because the more we show up, the less power they have."

Related Topics