That Happened: Rep. Ernest Hewett’s Sexual Comment Is the Tip of the Iceberg


ColumnA snake by any other name … is a penis.

In an appropriations committee hearing on the Connecticut Science Center on Feb. 20, a 17-year-old high school senior spoke about how the center helped her overcome her fear of snakes. She said, “I never liked snakes, but I started loving them, they’re my best friends.” She added that she wants to work with kids in the future, and said she’s usually a shy person.

Ernest Hewett, a Democratic State representative, replied, “If you’re bashful, I got a snake sitting under my desk here.” The committee laughed.

Here’s a young woman, interested in science, getting a chance to speak in front of an elected official. And maybe she came across confident, not shy. But his riff on her comment sexualized her, a minor, which seems to be popular this season. Hewett claims the comment came out wrong (I’d say). “What I meant to say was, ‘If you are shy, then I have an acre of land in the Everglades.'”

Or a bridge to nowhere?

Hewett has apologized, and the girl has reportedly accepted. He has been stripped of his position as deputy speaker, but he’s still currently in office. Never fear, he’s staying away from the girls.

In an effort to defend himself, which served to do the opposite, he told the Hartford Courant: “I purposely will not have female interns. My intern now is a male. I want to keep it like that. I’ve had female interns in the past that sit in my office all day. I thought it was totally weird and I didn’t want another. As a matter of fact, I went four, maybe six years without having an intern at all because of stuff like that. I have a male intern, the last two I’ve had were male.”

This begs the question: Stuff like what? In what ways did he harass and degrade the female interns unlucky enough to enter his chambers? Internships are essential in this economy and to lockout half of the population—and sometimes the best person for the job—because you’re worried that you can’t keep your snake in its basket, is illegal.

We’re celebrating that there are 20 whole women in Congress this year—which is, sadly, a huge deal given that of the nearly 2,000 senators in the history of Congress, only 44 have been female. Our joy says a lot about how hard it still is for women to excel in politics. We keep thinking it’s getting better, and then this kind of thing happens. For many, an internship is the entry point. If women are shut out of that experience or forced to endure sexual harassment to keep the job, the road to a political career just gets harder. And then we have fewer female leaders.

Illinois, and the country, lost a pioneer this week. Democrat Dawn Clark Netsch spent more than 60 years in Illinois politics. She was well-known, and respected, for speaking her mind. An advocate for women’s and gay rights, and a champion for racial equality, she was recently honored in Chicago at Planned Parenthood’s celebration of the 60th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Throughout her career she served as an adviser to Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr., helped rewrite the Illinois Constitution in 1970 and was elected state comptroller in 1990.

But it’s her early career that connects back to what happened last month in Connecticut. Netsch graduated first in her class from Northwestern University Law School in 1952, yet she could not get a job because she was a woman. She had the gumption not to let that hold her back. She went on to work on Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 presidential campaign, and then joined a Washington, D.C. law firm.

I can only hope that, like Netsch and the many other women who have faced adversity in their political careers, women who are being discriminated against will speak out and say: I will not stand for this. The more the grass is cut, the easier it is to find the snakes.

Photo credit: LongitudeLatitude