But she also made a powerful statement about the misogynistic culture that led to her downfall — promising to fight on “for a future where this no longer happens to women and girls.”
“Yes, I am stepping down, but I refuse to let this experience scare off other women who dare to take risks, who dare to step into this light, who dare to be powerful,” said the 32-year-old California congresswoman, more than a week after explicit images of her were published by a right-wing website without her consent. “The way to overcome this setback is for women to keep showing up, to keep running for office, to keep stepping up as leaders. Because the more we show up, the less power they have.”
Hill’s speech was remarkable because it was raw, deeply felt and human — at once acknowledging imperfections and errors, while also giving voice on the vaunted floor of the House of Representatives to a generation of younger women and men who have been subjected to threats, sexual shaming and humiliation through the use of explicit photos of them without their consent.
It underscored Hill’s political talent, her swift descent and the complex circumstances of her exit, which have sparked new debate about the patchwork of so-called “revenge porn” laws across the country and the federal legislation that has been proposed to address them.
The California congresswoman has acknowledged that she had a consensual relationship with a younger female campaign aide before she took office. She has denied a second allegation that she was romantically involved with a Congressional aide — a charge first made on Facebook by her estranged husband, then published on a conservative website — that is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee (because that kind of relationship would be a violation of House rules).
But the moral ambiguities of her situation got murkier, because the House investigation was announced after right-wing publications released the unauthorized nude photos of Hill. Hill has accused her husband, who has not responded to CNN’s repeated requests for comment, of orchestrating a smear campaign against her in the midst of divorce proceedings.
Hill said Thursday that unnamed adversaries boasted that they had “hundreds more photos and text messages that they would release bit by bit until they broke me down to nothing, while they used my faults and my past to distract from the things that matter most.”
‘The dirtiest gutter politics I’ve ever seen’
Stepping out of her apartment Thursday for the first time since the photos were published, Hill spoke as the first openly bisexual woman to represent Congress from California and a member of the new millennial caucus. She apologized for “falling short” of the hopes of supporters who wanted her to represent “young people, queer people, working people, imperfect people.”
She admitted that she was scared, humiliated, “terrified of facing all the people I let down,” and that she would be haunted by her errors in judgment for the rest of her life.
“For every little girl that looked up to me, I hope one day you can forgive me,” Hill said.
But in the course of a week where she said she “barely left my bed” and “shed more tears than I thought were possible,” Hill decided to take a stand against the threats and the use of the unauthorized images, because “hiding away and disappearing would be the one unforgivable sin.”
In Thursday’s speech on the floor of the House of Representatives Thursday, Hill said she was leaving her position “because of a double standard.”
“I am leaving because I no longer want to be used as a bargaining chip,” she said, condemning “the dirtiest gutter politics I’ve ever seen.” “I am leaving because of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed my naked pictures, capitalized on my sexuality, and enabled my abusive ex to continue that abuse, this time with the entire country watching,” Hill said.
“It might feel like they won in the short term, but they can’t in the long term. We can’t let them.”
Outlining the “double standard” she sees in Washington, Hill noted that many male members of Congress implicated in sexual misconduct have stayed on in their positions. She also alluded to Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court Justice who denied sexually assaulting a young woman as a teenager during his confirmation hearings.
Hill also scorned President Donald Trump, who was accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women during the 2016 presidential campaign. Both Trump and Kavanaugh have denied any wrongdoing.
She argued that “the forces of revenge by a bitter, jealous man” and “cyber exploitation and sexual shaming that target our gender” had “combined to push a young woman out of power and say she doesn’t belong here.”
Hill then noted the irony in Trump’s ascent: “Yet a man who brags about his sexual predation, who has had dozens of women come forward to accuse him of sexual assault … sits in the highest office in the land.”
“We have an entire culture that has to change,” she said.
As that culture relates to revenge porn, Hill’s native state of California has some of the strongest laws on the books, but protections vary dramatically state by state.
Hill’s home state making changes
California Rep. Jackie Speier and New York Republican Rep. John Katko introduced legislation earlier this year known as the SHIELD Act that would crack down on so-called revenge porn, with Speier noting that “technology today makes it possible to destroy a person’s life with the click of a button or a tap on a cell phone.”
The legislation, which has been introduced in the US Senate by two Democratic presidential candidates — California Sen. Kamala Harris and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — along with Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, would make it unlawful “to knowingly distribute private intimate visual depictions with reckless disregard for the individual’s lack of consent to the distribution.”
The penalties could include fines and imprisonment of up to five years.
Hill’s allies expect her to be a voice for those kinds of reforms in the coming weeks and months — addressing what many see as a need for federal legislation that would provide more protections than the uneven netting of state laws on this topic.
The millennial congresswoman made it clear Thursday that she’s stepping down, but not going away.
“I yield the balance of my time for now,” Hill said, “but not forever.”