From the beginning of October, America has slowly begun to confront its public secret of sexual harassment. While many of the accused predators have been entertainment and media moguls like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Mark Halperin, and Charlie Rose, politics has also begun the lengthy process of recognizing its persistent culture of sexual harassment. Although America’s legislature has only achieved what some argue are mild reforms, preventing sexual harassment in Congressional halls has become an issue that transcends politics.
Behind the Times
While sexual harassment leaves both male and female victims in its wake, women are often targeted more, with some estimates suggesting three times as much. This gender disparity helps provide a useful context for Congress, where just treatment of women has been remarkably slow.
Women only entered America’s legislature in 1917 with congresswoman Jeannette Rankin from Montana, over 125 years after the signing of the American Constitution. It took another 50 years for women to have their own lounge in the Capitol, and women were not allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor until 1993, when Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS) challenged the chamber’s longstanding rules on women’s dress in an act of bipartisan defiance.
As a traditionally all-male institution, Congress has had a remarkably difficult time addressing sexual harassment, as voluntary sexual harassment prevention training and the Office of Compliance (on sexual harassment-related matters) were only established in 1995.
As allegations, both by staffers and sitting congresswomen have grown, a truly bipartisan effort has been made to prevent sexual harassment in both chambers. At the beginning of November, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution sponsored by Leaders McConnell (R-KY) and Schumer (D-NY) mandating sexual harassment training for Senators and aids. And the House is likely to pass a similar resolution following the Thanksgiving recess.
However, simply mandating training is not the only step many members of Congress believe should be taken. Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA), in tandem with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), have introduced bipartisan legislation that would protect interns and congressional fellows from sexual harassment with similar procedures that paid congressional employees receive, while also reforming the process to report sexual harassment to make it more accessible and effective. While the bill, aptly named the ME TOO Act, has not yet shown significant support from leaders in either chamber of Congress, it shows that protecting women and men from sexual harassment is a cause members from both sides of the aisle are eager to make.
Ethan Knecht is a sophomore in the SFS studying international politics, who writes about non-financial domestic issues, such as transportation, education, and healthcare.