‘It’s not just me’: Rasmussen says sexist remarks by fellow Anchorage lawmaker highlight culture women face

Rep. Sara Rasmussen announces that she is reviving the House Women's Caucus on Feb. 24, 2021
Rep. Sara Rasmussen announces that she is reviving the House Women's Caucus on Feb. 24, 2021((Courtesy 360 North/KTOO))
Published: Feb. 25, 2021 at 7:50 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Wednesday was Rep. Sara Rasmussen’s 31st birthday. But the fact that it was her birthday was not on her mind; she had prepared her notes to announce to the Alaska House of Representatives that she and a colleague had restarted the Women’s Caucus.

In announcing the bipartisan group of women lawmakers, Rasmussen, a Republican representing the Sand Lake area of Anchorage, closed with what she said was her favorite quote: “Here’s to strong women. May we know them, may we be them, and may we raise them.”

What’s unfolded in the day since then has sparked discussions on social media about workplace culture and how women and men are often treated differently.

It is customary on a lawmaker’s birthday for a colleague to give a public word of acknowledgment, as a “special order” in the day’s business.

Immediately following Rasmussen’s announcement, Rep. Zack Fields, a Democrat representing downtown Anchorage, addressed her birthday. He praised her as a lawmaker and said he enjoyed spending time with her husband and children who have been able to join her in Juneau.

“I have recently become aware of a problem caused by the representative in her home district,” Fields said.

He then read part of a social media comment left by a resident on Rasmussen’s Facebook page.

“To be clear, I’m reading from what one of her constituents wrote — quote — ‘Sara can wear a short skirt in Anchorage and stop traffic once the spring clothes can be worn’ — end quote.”

“Madam Speaker,” Fields continued, “I know we all share this voter’s concern about traffic safety, particularly in a neighborhood like Sand Lake, where so many children walk to school. Furthermore, I know nobody in this chamber would be so judgmental to condemn a colleague for being just as the good Lord made her. Nonetheless, this being her birthday, and having heard concerns about safety in her neighborhood, I wanted to let my friend from Sand Lake know that her colleagues and I have teamed up to purchase her a pair of sweatpants that she can wear when she returns to the district this spring. It’s the least we can do for the safety of her residents. Happy Birthday, to our dear friend.”

With all representatives present, the remarks drew a few table-taps in response, what lawmakers substitute for applause while in session.

When given the opportunity to respond, Rasmussen appeared stunned.

“Thank you Madam Speaker. For the first time, I am speechless, so thank you for the eloquent speech,” she said.

Rasmussen told Alaska’s News Source Thursday that she was surprised by Fields’ mention of the comments. The Facebook comment from which Fields had read had compared Rasmussen’s looks to another lawmaker’s, insinuating that her looks had gotten her a seat on the Finance Committee.

Rasmussen said she had seen the comment at the time and ignored it.

“I thought it was a stupid thing to say,” she said.

No one else had called out the man’s comment online. She showed a screenshot to fellow Republican Rep. Kelly Merrick, but hadn’t said anything public about it, or shared it with Fields.

After the session, Fields called Rasmussen to apologize. He told her he hoped he hadn’t offended her and didn’t mean any harm by it, she said.

The two have had a friendly relationship and work together when they have common ground, despite being in opposing parties.

Rasmussen said she did not believe, as Fields had joked, that other lawmakers had been “in” on the birthday wishes. And “no, he didn’t give me any sweatpants,” she said.

In an apology posted to his Facebook page, Fields said his statements on the floor were “inappropriate and in poor taste.”

“I know my comments impacted and harmed not just Rep. Rasmussen, but many women and for that I’m deeply sorry,” he wrote.

“I know I must earn back lost trust and am committed to doing that. It is never appropriate to comment on someone’s body or what they wear, or suggest that women are responsible for what other people do when they see them, ever, and I pledge to do better,” he added.

Alaska’s News Source reached out to Fields and a staffer referred us to the updated Facebook post.

Updated statement: My statements on the House floor were inappropriate and in poor taste. I called Rep. Rasmussen...

Posted by Representative Zack Fields on Thursday, February 25, 2021

The apology — an update from previous text — has garnered over 100 comments on Fields’ Facebook page. Many indicated that his initial apology did not go far enough and did not take ownership of what he had said.

“Commenting on the appearance of and sexualizing a female colleague in front of the entire legislature, in addition to buying her a humiliating gift was the sexist part,” wrote Jo Richter. “I believe that it was intended to be a light hearted compliment, but like many ‘compliments’ women receive on their appearance at work, it was deeply sexist.”

After Fields’ phone apology, Rasmussen said she had just wanted to move on.

“It’s embarrassing being in the center of attention based on appearance and not based on the intellect or work that you’re doing. Once I realized it wasn’t going away quietly, I figure the best thing is to bring more light to the issue,” she said. “And it’s not just me, but women in general and the culture that we face.”

Rasmussen said while being a public figure inherently brings more attention, comments like the one posted to her Facebook page, and the decision for it to be read aloud in the workplace, are not issues faced only by politicians and public figures.

“I think this is an issue that happens in just about every workplace probably,” she said. “I’m not the only woman that has ever been in this situation. It’s not the first time I’ve been in this situation. It happened to me as a server, pretty much across all industries.”

Other women in the House, across the political spectrum, have offered her their support.

Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, a Democrat, posted on Facebook saying she hoped it would turn into a learning moment.

“We have a tradition of humorous birthday roasts on the House floor,” Spohnholz wrote. “Most of the time these are funny and celebrate the birthday celebrant. Rep. Fields comments yesterday missed the mark by focusing on a woman’s physical appearance in a way that disrespected her professional accomplishments, stature as a leader, and basic workplace standards of conduct.”

“However, I believe that we all make mistakes,” she continued. “I’ve made more than a few myself. It’s what we do with those mistakes what makes all the difference.”

Spohnholz said she appreciated that Fields had apologized to Rasmussen personally and on social media, and that she hopes when the House meets again he will apologize on the House floor.

Rasmussen is happy to focus on lawmakers working together for the women of Alaska.

“For me, it’s just highlighting even more how important our Women’s Caucus is as female leaders to bring these things to light and do what we can to start a movement to raise more awareness,” Rasmussen said.

“I don’t think people understand that their comments, even when they’re meant in jest, I guess, it contributes to the sexism women face,” she continued.

Looking back at the original comment on Facebook, Rasmussen said she shouldn’t have just ignored it.

“I wish I’d said something to him, and said it wasn’t appropriate,” she said.

Rasmussen said she hopes the dialogue around Fields’ comments will make change.

“We need to find a way to give people the voice they have to say, ‘Your comment is not cool.’ And hopefully that will start to change,” she said.

In describing the Women’s Caucus to the House Wednesday morning, Rasmussen said she wanted to be a strong role model and impact all those around her — not just her immediate family.

The mother of two young children, a son and daughter, Rasmussen is proud to join together with women from such a diverse political spectrum in the House.

“I ran for office to not only set an example for my daughter, but for my son, who benefits from a strong mother that teaches him compassion, empathy, humility and cooperativeness. I can show him that it’s okay to make tough choices and what it means to be a leader,” she said.

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