Opinion

Can #MeToo power change state Capitol?

From the Editorial Board

The #MeToo movement is providing momentum to women who work or have worked at the state Capitol in Olympia to make changes in Capitol culture. Over 170 women have signed a letter demanding a better mechanism for addressing complaints of sexual harassment in the Legislature.
The #MeToo movement is providing momentum to women who work or have worked at the state Capitol in Olympia to make changes in Capitol culture. Over 170 women have signed a letter demanding a better mechanism for addressing complaints of sexual harassment in the Legislature. The Olympian

Ida B. Wells, a journalist and early civil rights movement pioneer said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

If only Wells could have lived long enough to see the power of a hashtag.

The social media #MeToo movement has shined a bright light on the problem of sexual harassment in the workforce, and we’re happy to report it’s shaken something loose in the American conscience.

It has become powerful proof that women working across all sectors, from fast-food restaurants to the upper echelons of Hollywood to the halls of government, have suffered at the hands of men who felt they were above both propriety and the law.

Saying “me too” gave women a strength-in-numbers courage to tell their stories.

That courage has now found its way to our own state Capitol.

Two former Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Jim Jacks of Vancouver and Brendan Williams of Olympia, were recently accused of sexual misconduct during their legislative terms within the past decade — accusations they have not denied. In addition, nine women opened up about being sexually harassed in the not-so-distant past by other lawmakers and lobbyists.

Nicole Grant, a former lobbyist, and Jessyn Farrell, a former House member from Seattle, gave their names in hopes others would come forward.

The other seven preferred anonymity, telling The News Tribune and Northwest News Network they feared losing their jobs, endangering their current work conditions or jeopardizing future employment prospects.

And therein lies the problem. Fear of retaliation is why more than 170 women signed a letter on Monday, titled “Stand with Us.” It urges the Legislature to create a structure where victims feel free to disclose complaints without fear.

The state House and Senate say they already have options to address harassment complaints, but they’re run by administrators appointed by partisan leaders. They’re simply inadequate.

It’s unknown how many claims of unwanted advances and other sexually inappropriate behavior have been made in Olympia. Requests for those and other public records have been denied the TNT and its news partners. It’s why a coalition of media organizations is suing the Legislature for daily schedules, emails, text messages and other work-related materials.

Perhaps public demands to shine a light on the sharks who have swum freely in state government will compel lawmakers to play by the same disclosure rules as everyone else.

Sen. Karen Keiser of Kent says she plans to introduce legislation to exempt sexual harassment and assault complaints from “gag rules and secrecy.” That’s great, but it’s not nearly enough..

Victims need confidence to complain in the first place, assurance their disclosures are protected and guarantees that any retaliation is subject to civil or criminal liability. If these mechanisms aren’t in place, harassment will resume unreported after the #MeToo momentum wanes and society moves on to the next hashtag craze.

Silence in the face of wrongdoing leads to its continuation; it empowers abusers to believe they’re beyond reach. As a pre-president Donald Trump once said: “When you’re a star, they let you do it.”

We’re pleased to see the boys-will-be-boys ethos that for too long served as an excuse for men to mistreat women is weakening. The #MeToo tsunami gives hope that sexism in all its expressions will be largely washed away — from sexual assault to mansplaining to crass behavior like the “leg of the day” award, which some male legislators awarded to women in the House gallery years ago.

For #MeToo to truly be successful, the movement must go beyond cybershaming and lead to policies that protect people. And those protections must be enforced.

Movements ultimately fail if all they do is exhaust some righteous indignation so that people in power can return to abusive business as usual.

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