Katie Hill on refusing to disengage from politics: ‘Change is too important to step out of the arena’

Katie Hill-Former California Representative
Katie Hill, a former Representative from California, speaks during the 2020 Makers Conference in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. The event gathers industry leading females for roundtable discussions to help inspire the women of tomorrow. Photographer: Kyle Grillot/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Kyle Grillot—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Katie Hill is an open book. It’s not a quality the former congresswoman took on by choice, but one she learned to embody after intimate details of her life were published online.

In the fall of 2019—less than a year after she was elected to Congress in 2018—nude photos of Hill were published by conservative media outlets; Hill has said she believes the photos were leaked by her husband. (He has denied those allegations, including recently to the New York Times.) In her new book, Hill explains the photos’ relationship to her affair with a female campaign staffer. The situation—nude photos released, and the threat of more—led Hill to resign from Congress in October of last year.

“The vast majority of people who know who I am, if I encounter them on the street and they recognize me, I have to hold it within my mind that there’s a very good chance they’ve seen my naked pictures,” Hill explains. “That’s a really shitty thing to think about.”

In the wake of that level of violation, Hill seems impossible to rattle: Ask her almost anything, and she’ll tell you the answer straight. In her book, She Will Rise: Becoming a Warrior in the Battle for True Equality, Hill does just that, explaining exactly what is so violating about cyber-exploitation (known by some as revenge porn, which Hill says is a problematic misnomer) and how domestic abuse works.

That’s not to say that the book focuses entirely on the painful end of Hill’s tenure in D.C. She also reflects on her many positive experiences on Capitol Hill—including how closely she, as a member of the freshman class’s leadership, worked with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her tight relationships with the other women who transformed Congress after the 2018 elections. In fact, she frets that her story might dissuade younger women and girls from running for office and urges them not to be cowed.

Hill hasn’t yet been able to officially divorce her husband; she says he has refused to sign divorce papers, and her trial over the issue has been caught up in coronavirus postponements. She’s worried that her heightened visibility as an author and as the founder of Her Time, a PAC working to elect women and young people to office, could lead her to be targeted again.

Katie Hill-She Will Rise book

Hill spoke to Fortune about the tough experiences she details in her book, her vision for her future—“Never say no” to returning to political office, she says—and the lessons her history holds for future candidates. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Fortune: Before you entered politics, you worked in the nonprofit sector, including with women fleeing domestic violence. Did you ever compare or connect their own experiences to yours at the time? Have you reflected on any similarities in the years since?

Katie Hill: I fell into the category of people who thought, “If it’s not physical, it doesn’t count.” Or, “I’m a strong, independent woman, and I should be able to stand up for myself.” This ongoing justification to yourself, a failure to recognize these behavioral patterns when it comes to your own relationship, a total denial. Occasionally I would say, “There’s a red flag,” but I pushed it off to the side. It wasn’t until later when I started to look at it from the coercive control side of things rather than bruises on your face that it started to make sense to me. As things devolved over the course of my relationship and got worse and worse, it became more obvious.

You mention in an aside that you’ve swapped stories about being the target of late-night talk-show jokes with Monica Lewinsky. What were those conversations like?

She reached out in the aftermath of what happened to me, saying she was thinking about me. She was doing projects on public shaming. It was nice to be able to talk to her a few times through the course of it all. Having been through the entire journey of it, she talks about how she’s now able to laugh about it, but at the time how traumatizing it was for her. She was even younger. She wasn’t a political figure. She was simply the victim of it. And she was blamed as the villain by the left. That’s not my experience. Her ability to heal over the years and transform that into someone who’s doing good work for people who have been through similar experiences is really powerful and something that inspired me too.

In the book, you write that your grandfather was an influential figure who supported you as a young girl and said you could achieve anything. Then, late in the book, you reveal that a woman whose history of domestic abuse you’ve described in the text was actually your grandmother—and that the man abusing her was the grandfather you looked up to. Why did you frame that story that way?

It is absolutely true, when I think about how I was raised to be strong and the kinds of role models who were important figures for me—he was one of them. I’d heard a little bit from my mom and grandma about how maybe my grandpa wasn’t that great when he was married to her. It was never in any real detail. During the course of writing the book I found out more than I’d ever known before. The reveal was intended [to mirror] my own reveal—to do it in a way that shows people are complicated. There’s not just a single black-and-white way of looking at things. Neither experience is invalidated by the existence of the other.

Could or would you have shared any of this—these detailed allegations of abuse by your ex-husband—if you were still in Congress?

I don’t know. It’s hard to say. You have a different calculus when you’re in political office. I feel much more freedom now to be totally open about anything. I don’t have to worry about reelection, I don’t have to worry about all the different parties who might be impacted by my decision to talk about something or share details. I would’ve not wanted that to be as publicly discussed if it weren’t for the fact that my life had already been kind of ripped open. To me it felt like important context to share.

My mom was a big inspiration for me talking more about domestic abuse. She said, “A lot of people think women are weak for being in these kinds of relationships. So the fact that you were this powerful woman who got elected to one of the highest offices in the country, and yet you still went through that for so long, and it took this much courage to leave, that’s something people should know.”

In the book, you describe intense abuse and controlling behavior going on at home while you were running for office. How were you able to focus on the campaign?

That was a coping mechanism. My work was my freedom. That was the space away from home where I was able to have respite, to feel like I was in charge, and to actually be in charge. To have power and control over my own destiny. I knew the only place I could do that was outside the home. It is incongruous to think about it. I used to rationalize it: I have big important jobs where I’m making decisions all day, so I like that I’m not doing that at home. But those were the kinds of things he told me too, and I believed.

You write a lot in the book about the “gray areas” of workplace relationships and sexual encounters that have been part of conversations related to the #MeToo movement, including in reference to the relationship you had with a member of your campaign team. Do we need another reckoning like #MeToo to happen before we’re really ready to discuss these the gray areas?

I think we’re going to have to have a real meaningful discussion about the gray areas. We’re going to have to have a real, open conversation that a much bigger percentage of people than we ever would like to admit have done things that would now be considered totally inappropriate or even illegal or unethical. Anyone who was teenaged to adulthood up until pretty recently has likely had some kind of experience where they’re wondering, “How bad was that?” Or, “I know that that was over the line, but how far?” I’ve had guys who’ve said, “I don’t know, looking back on it, if she was too drunk, if I interpreted it right.”

Finding some way of coming to a reckoning—when we have somebody who’s made a mistake or done something bad, what do we want from them? What are we looking for in terms of redemption? What makes an apology genuine or acceptable? What kind of amends need to be made? Working in the social services sector, I believe in recovery in general. Unless we’re planning on locking everybody up and excommunicating them from general society, then we are going to have to figure out a way that people, and men in particular, can learn from mistakes of the past and change their behavior moving forward. And also have genuine compassion and have asked for forgiveness from people they’ve hurt.

How do you create policy that takes these subtleties into account?

That’s really challenging. The policy aspect around all of this is really difficult. Just around sexual assault—out of every 1,000 cases of rape, 995 of the perpetrators just walk completely free. Laws are going to be difficult to capture the extent of this. You are often left in these “he said, she said” situations. Just like you saw with Christine Blasey Ford and what’s-his-face—Kavanaugh. A bigger impact is going to be had by us talking about it more. That’s the part that’s going to have to change before we can remotely expect laws or lawmakers to change.

What responsibility do you think tech companies hold in the kind of cyber-exploitation you experienced?

Tech companies have really been let off the hook. They’ve made some lip service toward it. The Communications Decency Act—Section 230—has really allowed for total blanket immunity for tech companies for users’ content on their platforms. For them not to have any responsibility to enact systems that do track for these abusive images—then they’re failing at their jobs, and they’re hiding behind this immunity granted to them in the CDA. This is something we’re going to be fighting for a long time.

What are your relationships like today with the women who were part of your congressional freshman class? Including those who, for whatever reasons, as you describe, didn’t speak out in support of you at the time of your resignation?

They’re good. We text fairly regularly. I live in D.C. now; before coronavirus it was easier to see people. I feel a lot of compassion and empathy for them and what they’re going through—trying to be there for their constituents and run these tough reelection campaigns and do so in the time of COVID. So many of them are in these tough seats—we have no idea how it’s going to play out with voting disrupted. It’s a hard time for a lot of them. I know how hard they work and how little credit they get for it all. I’m sending them my love, wishing them strength, and grateful for their leadership.

You say you don’t regret running for office and don’t want your experience to discourage young women from running. But how has your story affected young women so far? What have young women you’ve come across said to you? What do you want to say to them?

Many of them have said they were so mad about what happened to me that it further steeled them and made them want to run. There are others, especially younger ones, who said, “Based on what happened to you, I’m afraid of that happening to me.” I’ve said to them: “What happened to me is basically the worst-case scenario.” I’m trying to show them that by surviving, making it out of it, raising the question—could I have politically survived if I’d stayed in?—that might make young people feel like this isn’t something that would be career-ending to them.

You certainly don’t want this to happen, but if it does, you can be mentally prepared for it. It’s something that’s going to have to be addressed as we move into an age where nearly everyone who is running for office has had these kinds of photos.

You write that we need to allow women to be “flawed.” What does it mean to allow women to be flawed in public life and as our leaders?

People are human. Women are humans. Women have been held up to a higher standard historically. Bad behavior is to a certain extent expected of men. Men cheat on their wives, and no one bats an eye. Especially political figures. Men are able to come back and say, “I did this wrong, I’m praying for forgiveness.” They go away for a little and they’re able to make their comeback.

I don’t think that changes the standards we need to hold people to as to their behavior in public office. If you’re using the power you have in your position to do illegal trading or to work against the interests of your own constituents, that’s the kind of corruption and behavior we need to be going after people for. There’s a personal life element that should be off the table to a certain extent.

Would you ever return to a life in politics?

I’ve thought about that a lot. I know enough about myself and about how life works to not rule it out completely. I also feel like it’s too early for me to start thinking about that. In the meantime I’ve started Her Time to help other women get elected, and I’m having an impact in that way.

I don’t want to leave politics altogether. It’s not like I want to become a writer and hide in a cabin somewhere. I do want to be involved in this. Change is too important to step out of the arena.

If there were stricter protections in place against cyber-exploitation, would that change your thinking about whether to run for office again?

It’s certainly a possibility. I know if I were to run again, it would completely open it up. Right now, my biggest fear has been with the book coming out, being more visible with the PAC—it’s opening yourself up to this attack not only from my ex but from the people who tried to take me down in the first place. They want me to stay down. They do not want me to be loud or continue to be relevant at all. It’s an act of defiance for me to do so.

What have your concerns been for women experiencing domestic abuse during coronavirus lockdowns?

Huge. There are fewer women who are going to be able to call into these hotlines because they’re stuck 24/7 with their abusers. You usually have to wait for an abuser to leave to even come up with any way of calling for resources or help. The shelters are full. Now you have the second factor of people who are unemployed, struggling financially, or don’t have childcare. Financial, childcare, being stuck in close proximity, employment-related concerns—these all factor into this toxic dynamic within bad relationships or with an abuser.

You mention briefly in the book that you have endometriosis. Were you involved with Rep. Abby Finkenauer’s efforts on this issue in Congress? And what have you thought of her recent successes securing funding for endometriosis research?

We’d never talked about it. That was happening mainly after I was gone. I’m really proud that she’s doing that. I think it’s amazing that she’s speaking about an issue that affects so many women. Additional research is absolutely needed, like so many issues that specifically affect women. We don’t know the cause of endometriosis, and we don’t know why some women get it and other women don’t. We don’t know good treatment for it. I’m glad she’s pushing for the resources. That could potentially help a lot of people.

You write that longtime officeholders don’t quite understand the kinds of campaigns you and your peers ran in 2018. What about in 2020?

Trying to run a campaign during coronavirus is a completely different landscape. Everyone has had to change their tactics completely. In a lot of ways, people running for the first time now are going to be better equipped than those who have run traditional campaigns. When you know one way of doing it, it’s really hard to imagine. If you’ve never done it before, you’re a bit more nimble.

What don’t people understand about domestic abuse and cyber-exploitation that they need to?

For domestic abuse, there are two myths or commonly held beliefs: that it’s not real abuse if it’s not physical and that someone’s weak if they stay in a relationship. The truth is even somebody who’s incredibly powerful and strong—there are countless reasons, including deeply psychological ones, that cause people to stay in relationships.

My hope is that younger readers or anyone might be able to read some of that and say, “That is happening to me” or “That has happened to me.” Or if they experience it later they can recognize that that’s a toxic behavior.

Cyber-exploitation—we need to dispel the myth that the victim has done anything wrong. When you hear, “She shouldn’t have put herself in that position,” or “She should never have taken those photos”—we’re talking about photos in many cases that were not even taken consensually, let alone distributed consensually. It’s one of the reasons the term “revenge porn” is problematic. “Revenge” implies the woman has done something the guy has the right to avenge. There’s nothing she could have done that deserves that. And porn implies it is acceptable for sexual enjoyment—neither of those is okay.

One of the most overwhelming feelings is knowing that the vast majority of people who know who I am, if I encounter them on the street and they recognize me, I have to hold it within my mind that there’s a very good chance they’ve seen my naked pictures. That’s a really shitty thing to think about. And to know I’m never going to be able to get those pictures completely gone.

What would you say your biggest accomplishment has been as a national politician, whether in Congress or afterward?

As part of the freshman class and leadership within the freshman class, we passed landmark legislation very quickly. I was part of helping to advocate for it among my class and to advocate for it to the American people. Things like passing the Equality Act, passing the For the People Act, the Raise the Wage Act. Back-to-back-to-back we had these amazing accomplishments. While they’re stuck in the Senate, we now have the precedent that they’ve passed the House and the pressure from the American people to push on to the Senate and the White House to make these things happen in the next term.

I’m proud that I was part of that and part of the freshman class that made so much history. Those don’t go away. The next part is figuring out where my legacy goes from here.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

LeadershipBroadsheetDiversity and InclusionCareersVenture Capital