Social Impact Authors: How & Why Karen Hinton of ‘Penis Politics’ Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan


I aim to help women speak up, not shut up, about sexual harassment, abuse and gender discrimination by reading my book and recognizing their own experiences or experiences of girls and women they know. Ultimately, what women want is to be treated with respect in their daily lives and as professionals in their work. My goal with Penis Politics is to help change the way we treat each other at work, in school and at home. The book is an outspoken appeal to moving us in the right direction and a wake-up call for men to support women in their lives.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Hinton.

Karen Hinton, author of Penis Politics: A Memoir of Women, Men And Power, served as press secretary to Andrew Cuomo when he was federal Housing Secretary and later to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio. She began her career as a reporter in Mississippi and Colorado; served as press secretary to Congressman Mike Espy; worked for the Democratic National Committee, and held various positions in communications and public relations. Hinton regularly contributes to the New York Daily News and other publications, focusing on the topics of #MeToo, sexual harassment, and skewering big oil, big banks, and other big bullies. A University of Mississippi graduate, Hinton and her husband divide their time between New Orleans and New York City.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Growing up in the small, rural town of Soso, Mississippi (population 408), I spent nearly every waking moment with a group of four teenage girls. A school teacher described us as her “coterie”. Starting from age 12, we became best friends at school, in basketball practice and during summer days, roaming free in the woods and chasing the 3:14 p.m. train as it rumbled through the outskirts of town, wondering if we could ever catch it and go somewhere, anywhere else than Soso.

Too country, stubborn and outspoken to ever be mistaken for Southern Belles, my friends and I spent hours in an abandoned railway car we used as a hideout, helping each other through the emotional minefields of adolescence and puzzling over race, femininity, sex and the worry of being last in everything — grades, jobs, money, looks. We knew that being from Mississippi and being girls, we would never be winners. At the time we didn’t consider that, being white, we had advantages that the Black kids in Soso didn’t — as far as we were concerned, we were all out of luck.

We knew life was different for girls. My momma got an allowance from Daddy each week, and he wouldn’t let her take a job. Her momma, my mamaw, was married and pregnant by the time she was 14 years old. We were not supposed to question why we had to take typing for two semesters instead of one semester like the boys, or why our basketball team was made fun of even though we won more games than the boys, or why the adults in our lives expected boys to flirt and girls to resist them.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

Yes. Flannery O’Connor always surprised, shocked and scared me with her troubling, contradictory endings from her short stories. Too many questions, conflicts, and misunderstandings surfaced in all of her stories, but I couldn’t stop reading them regardless of the head-banging details. O’Connor helped me understand the troubles and struggles that women, as well as people of color, face.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

The most valuable mistake I ever made as a journalist began at a concert in New Orleans, featuring the punk rock band, The Clash. During a bathroom break, I could smell the sewer outside the club. New Orleans was largely below sea level and had to pump everything that went down, back up, including the sewer. A similar sewer smell permeated the backyard of my rental house in Jackson, Mississippi, where I worked as a reporter. A news story was in the making, I decided. After a week of interviews with people who worked on Jackson’s sewer system, professors who studied water and sewer systems, city council members who oversaw Public Works for the city, as well as residents actually having problems with their toilets, I proudly wrote 40 inches (about 1,400 words) of information about sewers.

My editor cut it in half.

I threw a public fit in the newsroom. The editor ordered me out of the newsroom and took me up to the roof. He lectured me that no one would read 40 inches about the “shit in their toilets.” We stood toe to toe while he explained why half of my story had been spiked.

“That’s the meanest thing any editor has ever said to me in my nine months of journalism.”

“Hinton, it won’t be the last,” he said.

The lesson was clear: Remember who your readers are. Remember who the listeners are. Remember not to be boring!

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

I aim to help women speak up, not shut up, about sexual harassment, abuse and gender discrimination by reading my book and recognizing their own experiences or experiences of girls and women they know. Ultimately, what women want is to be treated with respect in their daily lives and as professionals in their work. My goal with Penis Politics is to help change the way we treat each other at work, in school and at home. The book is an outspoken appeal to moving us in the right direction and a wake-up call for men to support women in their lives.

Penis Politics is about how all women have to navigate the world that powerful men create — whether they are politicians, fathers, teachers, coaches, professors, bosses, male colleagues. It’s about understanding that, in this world, a caring coterie of women can be an effective suit of armor against it all. While I spent much of my career in the spotlight of politics, women will recognize in their own lives my stories of the small, everyday abuses that some men use to magnify their power. I slowly thread a needle in the book, sewing my life’s experiences with familiar patterns to describe penis politics and how I chose to defy its impact on myself and my family. Some men use their authority to feed their egos and hide their insecurities with immoral and sometimes illegal methods always at the expense of the women who surround and support them. Men like this need women for their work but rarely value them for their contribution.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

The first part of Penis Politics is a coming-of-age story about me and my three girlfriends and how our relationship helped me develop enough courage to leave our small town, find other places to explore, and land in the big cities of Washington, D.C. and New York City. Our teenage relationship didn’t keep me from making mistakes, but it allowed me to escape from a way of life that was stifling me. My three friends stayed in Mississippi and lived a different life. In this section of the book, I reveal the sexual trauma that one of us faced and show how it impacted us all for the rest of our lives.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

My “aha” moment is in the book. In fact, the very act of writing the book was a big “aha”. At the age of 57, I suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in a freak accident. Initially unable to speak, read or write — much less think clearly — the process of remembering and setting down on paper my reflections helped me recover. Writing allowed me to make sense of a life that was nearly taken from me.

One day, while I was still recovering, I cautiously walked up two flights of stairs to the attic in our 120-year-old house in Katonah, New York to search for a suitcase my daughter needed. The search led to my momma’s hope chest, hidden by old quilts and boxes. The 1949 chest, purchased when my parents married was full of mostly hope then, but it contained four generations of emotional tokens and, surprisingly, a diary I had written from 1972 to 1976, my high school years. The diaries were about my three girlfriends and our coterie. I flipped the pages furiously at first. Screaming, laughing and crying. I had to slow down to read and take it all in. This happened in 2018 when I began to think about our lives as girlfriends and my life going forward. Reading shocking, hilarious and sad entries during that time brought to life some of the dead neurons floating around beneath my skull. It was an “aha” moment.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I believe my willingness to speak up in 2021 about the time two decades earlier when Andrew Cuomo, for whom I was working, held me in a sexually-inappropriate embrace in his hotel room, supported the eleven women who were telling their stories to the New York Attorney General, giving investigators the details and evidence needed to lead to Cuomo’s resignation. Unlike the women who worked for him in his office, I never spoke up about the incident because I feared Cuomo would call me a liar and ruin my career. My truth from the past helped strengthen the truth in the present about his inability to deal with women in the workplace appropriately.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?


1) Corporations need to change for both ethical reasons and for profit. Sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination is a cash drain for corporations. Large companies not concerned about their own penis politics have suffered from staggering losses in market share and economic growth. A study, published by Elsevier’s SSRN, found that “companies with the highest incidences of sexual harassment underperform the U.S. stock market by approximately 19.9 percent the subsequent year.” It also found that the yearly loss in shareholder value in a company with sexual harassment problems is about 7,000 times larger than the maximum compensation of $300,000 to a victim of sexual harassment under existing federal law.

2) Men need to shape up — Men in the workplace need to stand by their women colleagues and, while standing at the water cooler, they need to tell their male colleagues and friends to stop treating women badly and why. Men also need to listen, help and join in the fight against sexual abuse, harassment and discrimination, including fathers.

3) Women need the strength to speak up, not shut up — Women should believe they will be believed and feel unafraid to tell the appropriate individuals and authorities about sexual harassment, abuse and gender discrimination. Attorneys Generals, federal, state and local prosecutors and police need to take complaints filed by women seriously and not dismiss or ignore them, as is the case too often today.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is bringing co-workers together to work together as a team to support a vision, without arrogance, intimidation and a need for power, control and authority. No one can lead with fear as the primary motivator for successful action in the workplace, especially over time.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1) I wish someone had told me early to think about the audience as I was writing the book. I included pages and pages of stories that interested no one but me. I had a good editor and a few friends who read the drafts and told me so.

2) I wish someone had told me first-time writers are not likely to find a publisher who will let them write more than 90,000 words for the book. I had to cut my first draft from 150,000 to 90,000 words. It was really difficult to decide what to remove and what to edit to reach that goal.

3) I wish I had spoken up about the impact sexual harassment has on girls and women, earlier in my life than at 63. My book is about how sexual harassment, as well as assault, changed the lives of women I have known, as well as myself.

4) Reading less about politics and more about culture is a mistake I made and, despite being told otherwise, I still read too much about politics. The last book was Peril by Bob Woodward.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Women are like teabags. We don’t know our true strength until we are in hot water.” A high school English class teacher repeated this quote, using it to encourage not only me but my three girlfriends to tough up and find our strength — our hot water — when we dreaded a test, worried about college or our first dates. I wrote this quote down and never forgot it to ensure I was ready for anything.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Monica Lewinsky to tell her how important she is to the women’s movement today and how she exemplifies the shift in attitude about sexual harassment and abuse.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Please share my website: where contact information can be found!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!



Edward Sylvan CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group
Authority Magazine

Edward Sylvan is the Founder and CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group Inc. He is committed to telling stories that speak to equity, diversity, and inclusion.