Over the course of my 20 years as a New Jersey state legislator, it never occurred to me to disclose what’s to follow. I was too afraid of being stigmatised and destroying my career in public service. So I didn’t speak up after I was elected as the first female Senate majority leader. Not after I had the honour of serving as the first woman to chair the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. Even after running as the first female Democratic Party candidate for governor in 2013, my secrets remained unspoken.
Starting out as an idealistic – some might even say naive – female politician, I approached my job with the expectation I’d be treated as a co-equal partner by male colleagues. I took comfort in believing all of the carefully honed grit and tenacity that landed me in office would overcome – or at the very least, keep in check – any sexist behaviour. I figured it would be easier navigating it now than it had been as a teenager new to my first paying job as a waitress. That was the first and last time I quit my job because I felt denigrated and threatened by a man.
Little did I know how outmatched I was.
I was not prepared to deal with predatory behaviour ranging from overt assault to casual verbal misogyny. So I kept quiet. I put my head down and charged ahead, bobbing and weaving as I went. I became an expert at deflecting and pretending outrageous behaviour had not just occurred.
While fear and embarrassment kept me from speaking out in real time, after reading the most recent accounts by New Jersey women – many of whom I know and deeply respect – exposing the ongoing toxic workplace culture of sexual harassment and assault in the body politic, I feel compelled to raise my voice now. I regret remaining silent this long.
Hostility toward strong female leaders is endemic to the New Jersey political establishment. Today it might surprise some that in 2012 I was met with a collective gasp after invoking the term “misogynist” to call out a...