Standing against sexual harassment in the Legislature

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One year ago this month, people in Washington, across the nation, and even around the world took to the streets to march in what ended up being the largest single-day protest in the history of the United States. Those who participated in the Women’s March sent a strong message to newly inaugurated President Trump and his administration: Women’s rights are human rights. We marched to say that we will not allow the hard-won rights of women and other historically disenfranchised groups in our country – including immigrants and refugees, communities of color, and the LGBTQ community – to be dismantled by this or any administration.

For many, it was their first protest march, their first time exercising a fundamental right we have as Americans. But it was much more than a march; it was a movement. It sparked long-overdue conversations about sexism, racism, homophobia and other kinds of discrimination and harassment people still experience in their day-to-day lives.

I believe momentum from the Women’s March helped give people the courage to go public with their stories of these experiences, which in turn fueled the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment. It seems no industry, no institution, has been immune from people – the majority of whom are women – coming forward with sexual harassment claims, and that includes our state legislature. When the stories first began appearing in the media about specific incidents experienced by legislative staff, lobbyists, and even other legislators, I felt incredibly disheartened but not entirely surprised. Almost everything in the legislature is about power, and the exercise thereof. Where power exists, it can also be abused.

As a legislator, I often use my power to help move people in conflict about an issue closer to resolution. This can help move good ideas and legislation forward in a way that is a win/win for all involved. However, people can also exercise power in harmful ways. Sexual harassment is a continuum, beginning on one end with sexist comments and behavior (not targeted at a specific individual) which create a hostile work environment, continuing on to sexual harassment targeted at an individual, and continuing further toward sexual assault and rape. While not the same, all of these are completely unacceptable.

That’s why when I read the stories and began to realize how pervasive this behavior is in the legislature, I sent a letter to my female legislative colleagues asking if they agreed that it was time to speak strongly, with one voice, about the need to end sexual harassment. The result was a letter titled “Stand With Us,” signed by more than 220 legislators, lobbyists and staff members. It said, quite simply, “Enough.” Together, we committed to supporting the policy and cultural changes necessary for a safe and supportive workplace for all within the legislature. That includes a safe process for reporting harassment and other unacceptable behavior, and meaningful consequences for those who engage in these behaviors.

Actually, policies around sexual harassment have already been in place at the legislature for some time. But the fact that so many stories have emerged detailing instances of harassment and worse means these policies are not always working as they should. We have more work to do.

I welcome the hard conversations we need to have about this issue. And while the goal is that nobody experience sexual harassment in the legislature ever again, this is as much a journey as it is a destination. We need to both address sexual harassment whenever it happens, and invite women and men to join together in changing sexist, racist and homophobic cultural attitudes that drive harassment.

There has already been some talk about potential legislation to help discourage or prevent sexually harassing behavior by lawmakers, although it’s too early to tell what specifically might be considered in the upcoming session. I believe the best approach to this issue will meld policy work with broader cultural change. I’m ready to tackle both.

I’m also going to keep fighting for things like closing the gender wage gap, closing the opportunity gap in our education system, and promoting an economy that works for everyone. I strongly believe when the playing field is level, more women – and men – will call out harassment and harassers because they won’t feel so powerless or vulnerable. There will be opportunities to address these issues in 2018 and beyond.

Like the Women’s March last year, the “Stand With Us” letter signed by more than 220 women sent a strong message to the leadership and members of both chambers and both parties. Significant work to address pervasive sexual harassment and assault is needed. The legislature should lead the way. One of the ways you can help is to join the Olympia Women’s March on Jan. 20. Let’s work together to advance unity, equity and justice.

Note: The “Stand With Us” letter can be viewed here: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4176100-Stand-With-Us.html

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