Eleven years ago, the #MeToo movement wasn’t trending and sexual assault was a taboo subject. Yet Rep. Niki Tsongas was confronted with it twice during her first weeks in Congress.
The first was at an Armed Services Committee hearing, in which generals outlined the Pentagon’s efforts to combat sexual assault. “I have to say I was completely taken aback that it was such an issue that we had generals up there seriously trying to deal with it,” Tsongas said.
Soon after, she attended a Wounded Warrior lunch where she met a nurse who’d been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan at least four times. When Tsongas brought up the issue of sexual assault, the nurse said to her, “Ma’am, I’m more afraid of my own soldiers than I am of the enemy.”
That’s when Tsongas made up her mind to spend her time in Congress on sexual assault in the military — on bills to help survivors report assaults and to prevent retribution when they do.
But the Massachusetts Democrat, first elected in 2007 and retiring at the end of the term, has been in the minority for the majority of her time in Congress. She’s had to reach across the aisle to make it happen.
Tsongas has worked closely with Rep. Michael R. Turner, who chairs the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee on which she serves as ranking member.
The Ohio Republican told Tsongas the story of how one of his constituents was killed. She was serving in the military and requested to transfer out of her unit after she was sexually assaulted. But her request was denied, and her assailant later murdered her.
After hearing that story, Tsongas worked with Turner to include language in the 2011 defense authorization bill that gave soldiers the right to transfer out of a unit and made a commander’s denial of such a request subject to review.
“You do not want people’s lives being put at risk because they’re serving with people that seek to harm them from within,” she said. “It’s a complete betrayal to those who sign up to serve our country.”
While Tsongas and Turner co-chair the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, they don’t always see eye to eye, especially on the authority given to commanders in sexual assault cases. Tsongas believes that a commander shouldn’t be the one to decide whether a case goes forward and has worked on legislation that removes the commander’s right to overturn a guilty verdict.
As a woman in Congress, Tsongas has been in the minority in more ways than one. She’s seen how important it is to have women represented when decisions are made. “Those of us who are in those places are in a unique position to force change, and were we not there, this change could not come,” she said.
Rep. Katherine M. Clark, a fellow Massachusetts representative, says Tsongas inspired her to run for election and calmed her fears of being ineffective as the most junior member of the delegation. Tsongas said to her, “The power and the privilege of this job is that even if you are able to get a discrete budget item, discrete bill passed, you can help millions of Americans.”
Tsongas does her work “very quietly and with a lot of grace,” Clark said.
When Tsongas was elected in 2007, she became the first woman in a quarter-century to represent Massachusetts in Congress.
“Women can’t win if women don’t run, so when the seat opened up I felt it was important to run,” Tsongas said.
Her husband, Paul E. Tsongas, had been a two-term House member, one-term senator and presidential candidate before he died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 55.
“Her family has been working with mine for close to longer than I have been alive,” said Massachusetts Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II. “As long as I have been around public service, there has been a Tsongas around public service.”
She’s “been more than just my colleague — she has been a mentor and a friend,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, highlighting her work to help veterans and women.
When women are underrepresented, things get overlooked, Tsongas said. Once she asked witnesses at an Armed Services panel hearing on body armor whether they were developing armor for women. They weren’t.
But just a year later, she was trying on body armor tailored for women’s bodies — a development that female soldiers thanked Tsongas for when she was in Afghanistan. Still, Tsongas said, the work is never done. After the soldiers thanked her for the body armor, they asked her if she knew they were issued men’s shoes.
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