JUNEAU — A member of the Alaska House of Representatives is facing criticism and is apologizing after delivering a speech on the House floor this week that included sexist remarks about the appearance of a female colleague.
Rep. Zack Fields, an Anchorage Democrat, spoke Wednesday to wish happy birthday to Rep. Sara Rasmussen, an Anchorage Republican. Lawmakers often give speeches celebrating birthdays of their colleagues, and they frequently include jokes in their remarks.
After praising Rasmussen, Fields said he had “recently become aware of a problem caused by the representative in her home district — a problem related to the risk of automobile collisions in her neighborhood.”
Fields then quoted from what he later said was a Facebook post by one of Rasmussen’s constituents: “Sara can wear a short skirt and stop traffic in Anchorage once the spring clothes can be worn.”
To recognize the need for traffic safety, Fields said, legislators would be giving Rasmussen a pair of sweatpants for her birthday.
“Madam speaker, 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,” Fields said, glancing across the House chamber toward Rasmussen. “Furthermore, I know nobody in this chamber would be so judgmental as to condemn a colleague for just being 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.”
As video clips of the speech spread on social media, Fields posted an apology on his legislative Facebook page, but respondents said it was inadequate.
“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, one of many people who responded.
“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,” she wrote.
Fields said later he was trying to make fun of the social media comment about Rasmussen but failed.
“It’s a tricky thing to use humor to critique gender stereotypes. How do you do that without reinforcing them? I think I failed to do that,” Fields said.
Minutes before Fields’ speech, Rasmussen had spoken on the floor about the need to re-form the House’s Women’s Caucus, in part because women in Alaska face challenges from domestic violence and sexual assault.
“It is up to us to set the example for ourselves and future generations,” she said.
Rasmussen said she received a call from Fields soon after the floor session, and that he apologized for what he said.
“I’ve accepted his apology and hope to move on from it,” she said.
She said she believes he didn’t intend any insult, but the speech — and the social media comment that led up to it — demonstrate a continued double standard in which it is not acceptable to attribute a man’s success to his appearance, but it is acceptable to do so for a woman.
“There’s still a lot that needs to be done to change our culture and respect women at the same level that men are already respected naturally,” she said.