How I stood up to a gathering of bull elephants
Early in 1970 the U.S. Navy decided it did not need my services after all. I had enlisted soon after college graduation and was due to report to the Great Lakes Training Center on January 6. Fortunately, other opportunities opened and I promptly moved to Washington, DC, where I had been a Congressional intern while in college.
The moderate Republican Congressman from my home district in Pennsylvania offered me a job. I began as a legislative assistant which was kind of a catchall title. My job description listed a number of expectations, the most important of which was to “perform other duties as assigned.”
Over time, I became media assistant and finally press secretary. Every two years I took time off to do campaign work.
All this leads up an invitation I received to join a professional and social networking organization called The Bull Elephants. It was an opportunity to engage with colleagues as part of what today might be called The Establishment.
There was, of course, significance in the group’s name. One source referred to Bull Elephants as “the Republican social club of the House of Representatives staff members.” A Library of Congress catalogue clarifies that it was the “unofficial association of male senior staff of Republican members of Congress and male Republican staff of congressional committees.”
In my office, the Congressman’s administrative assistant (the top job}, case worker, senior legislative aide and correspondence secretary all were women. For much of the time I worked there, I was the only male staffer.
So, in response to my invitation to join the Bull Elephants, I had one question: Why exclude women?
As best I recall, the reply began with “Frankly Mr. Swank, we prefer it that way.” I think it was the first time I had seen the word “distaff” used. Along the lines that the distaff Congressional workers were free to have their own group if they wanted.
I am pretty sure I enjoyed that response, as shallow as it was, more than I would have enjoyed becoming a Bull Elephant.
Several years later I became public affairs officer in the Maritime Administration, then part of the Commerce Department. I was a career employee but served under a number of political appointees. I had good and bad bosses under both Republican and Democratic administrations.
One of my favorites was a woman who also had worked for Republican Members of Congress. We of course discussed our Capitol Hill experiences.
It turns out that more than a decade after I raised the issue, the Bull Elephants changed their minds. She became the first female Bull Elephant. Although I no longer was a Republican, she and I got along very well.
In researching the Bull Elephants of Capitol Hill online, I came across an article about a herd of bull elephants at the Denver Zoo. It begins:
Raw testosterone leaks from slits on either side of their broad faces, running in rivulets down the wrinkled folds of their gray skin like liquid sideburns. The smell is acrid; one elephant researcher even described it as “evil.”