Elizabeth Warren isn’t the first woman to laugh off sexual harassment

Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Senator Elizabeth Warren.Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Does it add up? Senator Elizabeth Warren once told a lighthearted story about being chased around a desk by a fellow law professor and then recently recalled it with more outrage.

Yes, it adds up. Over the course of a woman’s career, a wide range of encounters with men can make you laugh, cry, or get really mad. Given that anger and tears are generally obstacles to female advancement, joking is the preferred fallback.

I’ve told many a funny story about the businessman who said his friends called him “big Dick” and I could too; the editor who worried out loud about “the bitch factor” in connection with my quest to become a columnist; and the colleague who, unhappy with my ascension to bureau chief, informed me it was tradition for the person in that position to buy a round of drinks at a state convention and then took me to a strip club to do it. I don’t equate those incidents with being chased around an office or a hotel room, as other women have come forward to report. But they were moments I chose to put behind me — and later recall as absurd, Dilbert-like episodes of life in the cubicle. When I tell my daughter about them, however, I am more serious.

For Warren, a switch in tone is being used to undercut her credibility. Bill O’Reilly used a similar weapon against Megyn Kelly. After his former Fox News colleague said she had complained about his inappropriate behavior, he released nice notes she had written to him. It was a way to cast doubt on her story.


Warren took a humorous approach when she recounted the story of a University of Houston law professor — who, according to one account, chased her “around the desk in uncontrolled lust while she laughed, equally uncontrolled, as she avoided his crab-like grasp” — at the professor’s funeral. She told the story with more indignation on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” as part of the #MeToo campaign in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. “It was like a bad cartoon,” she said. “He’s chasing me around the desk, trying to get his hands on me. And I kept saying, ‘You don’t want to do this. You don’t want to do this.’ ” If her political enemies get away with labeling that a lie or flip-flop, it’s just another example of the huge double standard faced by women and, for that matter, by Democrats. As of Oct. 10, The Washington Post’s running list of President Trump’s false and misleading claims had reached 1,318. In the past week, Trump has lied about everything from his tax plan to his call to the widow of a soldier killed in Niger.


Warren’s description of long-ago sexual harassment is just more evidence of its pervasiveness and the universality of a victim’s reaction to it. “I went back to my office and I just sat and shook and thought, ‘What had I done to bring this on?’ ” she said on “Meet the Press,” reflecting a common female response to weird or unpleasant interactions in life or work. She also said she never said a word about it, beyond telling a friend. Obviously, that’s not entirely accurate, since she told a humorous version of it to funeral attendees. And the delight in catching her in that discrepancy is a warning about what lies ahead as she pursues what seems to be a potential presidential bid.


Every word she utters will be weighed for truthfulness. Every retold anecdote will be measured for consistency. The same crowd that dismisses Trump’s whoppers wants Warren to take a DNA test to prove her Native American heritage.

That should be a joke. But just like sexual harassment,
it’s not.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.