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Female lawmakers allege harassment by colleagues in US House

FILE - In this Feb. 12, 2011, file photo, then-Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., listens at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. One current and three former female members of Congress tell The Associated Press they have been sexually harassed or subjected to hostile sexual comments by their male colleagues while serving in the House. For years Bono endured the increasingly suggestive comments from a fellow lawmaker in the House. But when the congressman approached her on the House floor and told her he’d been thinking about her in the shower, she’d had enough. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)
AP
FILE - In this Feb. 12, 2011, file photo, then-Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., listens at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. One current and three former female members of Congress tell The Associated Press they have been sexually harassed or subjected to hostile sexual comments by their male colleagues while serving in the House. For years Bono endured the increasingly suggestive comments from a fellow lawmaker in the House. But when the congressman approached her on the House floor and told her he’d been thinking about her in the shower, she’d had enough. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

WASHINGTON — For years, Republican Representative Mary Bono endured the increasingly suggestive comments from a fellow lawmaker in the House. But when the representative approached her on the House floor and told her he’d been thinking about her in the shower, she’d had enough.

She confronted the man, who she said still serves in Congress, telling him his comments were demeaning and wrong. And he backed off.

Bono, who served 15 years before being defeated in 2012, is not alone.

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As reports flow almost daily of harassment or worse by men in entertainment, business and the media, one current and three former female lawmakers said they, too, have been harassed or subjected to hostile sexual comments — by fellow members of Congress.

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The incidents occurred years or even decades ago, usually when the women were young newcomers to Congress.

They include isolated comments at one hearing, to repeated unwanted come-ons, to lewd remarks, and even groping on the House floor.

The revelations underscore that no woman is immune, even at the highest reaches of government.

‘‘This is about power,’’ said former California Senator Barbara Boxer, after describing an incident at a hearing in the 1980s where a male colleague made a sexually suggestive comment. The colleague, using the traditional congressional parlance, said he wanted to ‘‘associate’’ himself with her remarks — adding afterward that he also wanted to ‘‘associate with the gentle lady.’’

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Boxer said the comment was met with general laughter and an approving second from the committee chairman. She said she later asked that it be removed from the record.

‘‘That was an example of the way I think we were thought of, a lot of us. ... It’s hostile and embarrasses, and therefore could take away a person’s power,’’ she said.

Boxer and the other female lawmakers spoke on the record to tell their stories in the wake of revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s serial attacks on women, as well as disclosures from current and former Capitol Hill staffers about harassment by lawmakers and aides.

The lawmakers declined to identify the perpetrators by name, but at least two of the men continue to serve in the House.

None of the female lawmakers interviewed reported what happened, and some noted it was not clear where they would lodge such a complaint. At least three of the four told friends or aides about the incidents, which in some cases were witnessed by other lawmakers.

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‘‘When I was a very new member of Congress in my early 30s, there was a more senior member who outright propositioned me, who was married, and despite trying to laugh it off and brush it aside it, would repeat. And I would avoid that member,’’ said Representative Linda Sanchez, a Democrat from California.

She added that she would warn other new female members about the lawmaker in question, but she declined to identify him, while saying he remains in Congress.

‘‘I just don’t think it would be helpful’’ to call the lawmaker out by name, Sanchez said. ‘‘The problem is, as a member there’s no HR department you can go to, there’s nobody you can turn to. Ultimately they’re employed by their constituents.’’

Sanchez also said that a different male colleague repeatedly ogled her, and at one point touched her inappropriately on the House floor, while trying to make it appear accidental. She declined to identify the lawmaker but said he was no longer in Congress.

Bono, who arrived in the House at age 36 to replace her husband Sonny Bono after he died in a skiing accident, said she ultimately confronted her colleague on the House floor after he had made repeated harassing comments.

Bono declined to identify the lawmaker, saying the behavior stopped after she finally challenged him. He still serves in Congress, she said.

Former Representative Hilda Solis, now a Los Angeles County supervisor, recalls repeated unwanted harassing overtures from one lawmaker, though she declined to name him or go into detail.

‘‘I don’t think I’m the only one. What I tried to do was ignore it, turn away, walk away. Obviously it’s offensive. Are you supposed to be flattered? No, we’re adults. Not appropriate,’’ said Solis, who left Congress in 2009 to join the Obama administration as labor secretary.

‘‘It’s humiliating, even though they may have thought they were being cute. No, it’s not. It’s not appropriate. I’m your colleague, but he doesn’t see me that way, and that’s a problem,’’ Solis said.