Earlier this year, Del. Brooke Lierman was in Annapolis, standing with three men who she describes as “advocates for their industry.”
“I gave one of them a hug because I had not seen him in a long time and he’s sort of a family friend. And one of the other men said, ‘Well, you have to hug me too.’”
She turned him down. “I don’t have to hug you,” she explained. “I haven’t seen this person in a long time, and he’s a friend.”
His reply: “Well, that’s not fair. I deserve a hug, why aren’t you hugging me?”
When she again declined, he “just walked forward and threw his arms around me and his body against me and hugged me. I sort of looked at him and the other men, and I said, ‘That was totally inappropriate.’”
Reflecting, she says it saddened her the two other men didn’t step in. “Sometimes people just need to grow up. We are adults, right? We would not condone our sons or daughters acting like this, and we shouldn’t be acting like that.”
The gender dynamics of Annapolis have recently entered the public eye. In February, the Maryland Women’s Caucus (known formally as the Women Legislators of Maryland) released a report with anonymous allegations of sexual harassment, including cases where one female staffer said a male legislator put his hands up her skirt, a current female lawmaker was “shamed” for scolding a male colleague after he put his hand on her thigh, and a former staffer who said her boss agreed to write her a recommendation “because I had cleavage exposed that day.” One victim described the General Assembly as “like a fraternity house” (a label that most of the Women’s Caucus subsequently walked back in an open letter following news reports).
The Women’s Caucus report also offered recommendations for shifting the culture of the State House and holding perpetrators more accountable.
Three female delegates have since come forward alleging they suffered sexual harassment while in office. (Lierman, a Women’s Caucus member, points to those experiences and notes she almost feels “silly” relaying her hugging story.)
“I know they’re telling the truth,” she says. “And I have seen some of it.”
The Baltimore delegate noticed a more subtle imbalance shortly after she arrived in Annapolis in 2015. It showed itself when she approached men—fellow lawmakers, lobbyists, advocates and others—with a serious line of questioning.
“I would be in a budget hearing, and asking perfectly intelligent and appropriate questions of a secretary or deputy secretary about his agency–its budget, its functioning, its performance–and he would speak to me in an incredibly condescending way,” she says. “And a male colleague of mine would ask a question, and immediately the tone would change.”
This “mansplaining” has generally dissipated as Lierman has returned to Annapolis each year since–though not entirely.
“Time and time again, I ask tough questions, I work my bills,” she says. “I think I’ve gained the respect of many of the people who were initially [suspicious] of me. But certainly, I speak sincerely and I speak my mind in a way that I think surprises people because they’re not used to—I don’t know why it surprises people, but it does.”
Opposite of these examples, Lierman pointed out more than once that she has found trustworthy allies in male and female colleagues—both “heroes and heroines.” For the latter group, she counts her suite mate, Baltimore County Del. Shelly Hettleman; the chair of her Appropriations Committee, fellow Baltimore City Del. Maggie McIntosh; and the chair of her transportation and the environment subcommittee, Prince George’s County Del. Tawanna Gaines.
“For me, I hope being around them has helped me learn how to be more effective as a woman legislator. I am a legislator, but I am also a woman, so I bring a woman’s perspective, a woman’s experiences, and a mother’s perspective and experiences.”
Lierman says she makes a point of working with female advocates and lobbyists “to make sure they are being heard,” and of advising young women who visit her office or who she sees while touring her district. “I talk a lot about making sure you are standing up for what you believe in.”
Her advice to female newcomers to Annapolis: “I think people who are newly elected should prepare themselves, read up on bills, do the work it takes to be a capable advocate for your district and your neighborhood, and then also make sure that you surround yourself with people who respect you and who you aspire to be like.”
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