On Wednesday, all 22 women of the U.S. Senate joined forces to demand action on sexual harassment. In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the bipartisan coalition of members decried the absence of any proposed sexual harassment policy changes in last week’s $1.3 trillion spending bill.
“Survivors who have bravely come forward to share their stories have brought to light just how widespread harassment and discrimination continue to be throughout Capitol Hill,” the women wrote. “We urge you to bring before the full Senate legislation that would update and strengthen the procedures available to survivors of sexual harassment and discrimination in congressional workplaces.”
A recent survey found that 81 percent of working women had experienced some form of sexual harassment, and women in Congress are no exception to the rule. The #MeToo movement that brought to light how pervasive abuse of power impacts women across industries has already wrought consequences in Congress: Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers resigned last year in light of accusations of sexual misconduct; Rep. Trent Franks also stepped down after multiple female staffers alleged that he had offered them $5 million to serve as his pregnancy surrogate—and allow him to impregnate them.
Many of the young women who experience harassment and other forms of exploitation and abuse in Congress lack the resources to undergo the current arduous process, rendering it easy for silence to be bought, or for victims to feel cornered into inaction. The Congressional Accountability Act, in place since 1995, includes various policies that negatively impact victims—including restricting the reporting period for sexual misconduct cases. Gillibrand proposed legislation late last year to overhaul the law, removing the time limits on reporting and mandating transparency regarding which lawmakers are using taxpayer money to pay off accusers, but despite bipartisan support the body has done nothing to move it or other reforms forward.
After the letter’s release, Schumer said in a statement “that the Senate should quickly take up legislation to combat sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.” In an appearance on CNN, he explained that part of why the legislation by Gillibrand was stalling is that some lawmakers are put off by “specific provisions.” Notably, no female senator has voiced similar concerns. Across party lines, women in the Senate agree that current policies perpetuate “an inequity” that their male colleagues may (at least claim to) recognize, but certainly disagree on the extent to which this issue is a priority.
According to Politico, the letter was organized by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York). The unified demand for progress during this groundswell movement by women in the Senate across party lines is a testament to the importance of women’s representation in politics, and the impact women lawmakers have on our political systems. Women legislators are more likely to come together across party lines, as these 22 Senators have, and they’re also more likely to prioritize so-called women’s issues.
Much is made of the importance of allies and people of all genders being a part of #MeToo. And while men—especially those in positions of decision-making power—must certainly take action, and recognize how their silence amounts to complicity, the fact remains that their lived experiences won’t often compel them to act on issues like sexual harassment, and that their own inaction on such issues is far less likely to change their experiences moving forward.
More often than not, women are the only ones who fully understand the existential nature of fair sexual harassment laws. Through firsthand experience with sexism, they recognize its toxic effects on not just their careers, but every aspect of their lives. The powerful letter by the women in the Senate serves as a stark reminder that the underlying problem behind the #MeToo movement is not just men’s lecherous behavior, but women’s underrepresentation in the halls of power—from Hollywood to the world of higher education to Capitol Hill.
For women in the Senate, this is about more than grandstanding about sexual harassment while it’s trending on Twitter—it’s about fundamentally changing the power dynamics that shape their careers. And the men holding them back would do well to remember that #TimesUp.