Rep. Lois Frankel (D-FL) remembers the disappointing days before the #MeToo movement when sexual harassment and domestic violence were experiences without a proper name and space to discuss them. “Domestic violence was just a matter-of-fact,” she told Ms., looking back on her time in the Florida state legislature. “It wasn’t unlawful for one spouse to beat another.”
Today, however, the conversation is moving at full speed—and as co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, Frankel is helping to lead two major efforts to protect women across the country.
Frankel, alongside Reps. Ted Poe (R-TX), Jerry Nadler (D-NY), Barbara Comstock (R-VA) and Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) introduced the bipartisan EMPOWER Act in the House to tackle the #MeToo moment and harness its energy for long-lasting change. “Sexual harassment isn’t about sex—it’s about abuse of power,” Frankel told Ms., addressing the importance of the need to end workplace monopolies of power. “Time’s up. The bottom line is, sexual harassment takes place in every industry you can think of.”
The legislation, introduced in the Senate by Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), would put an end to the use of non-disparagement and non-disclosure clauses that prevent victims from speaking out, create a confidential sexual harassment reporting line with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and require that companies disclose the number of settlements for sexual harassment cases and the presence of individuals with repeated settlements in their annual tax filings. Under the law, companies would no longer be allowed to claim deductions for legal fees incurred through sexual harassment cases, either.
Frankel’s fight doesn’t end there: She’s also pushing to expand and strengthen the landmark Violence Against Women Act passed in 1994 to combat domestic violence and sexual assault.
VAWA has reduced serious victimization by an intimate partner by 72 percent for women and 64 percent for men—yet the act faced a contentious reauthorization fight in 2013 over new protections for LGBTQ people and Native American communities. VAWA is set to expire again on September 30, and Frankel is fighting alongside other Democrats in the House to pass reauthorization legislation by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) that expands programs for youth education and prevention efforts, strengthens protections for victims using housing grants and establishes the creation of a Violence Against Women director post in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Earlier in the month, Frankel and Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN) sent a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) urging them to increase funding for preventative services in VAWA’s upcoming reauthorization. By increasing funds for these preventative programs—including programs that will engage men and boys as allies and rape education and prevention programs sponsored by local and state-based organizations—the members hope to avoid the psychological and economic debilitation of domestic violence for individuals, families and communities.
“What we’ve been told is that communities are basically overwhelmed,” Frankel told Ms., “and the advocates believe that more money should be put into prevention—not just enforcement after-the-fact.”
Frankel also believes that these programs are critical because of their ability to affect change at the local level. “These actions, especially these local actions, have saved lots and lots of lives,” she noted. “We are hoping that this is going to be a bipartisan effort—and they really are community-based programs, so I’m hoping we keep it away from the President. His administration has not been very female-friendly at all.”
Frankel sees Lee’s legislation as a “pretty modest proposal”—but the political climate she referenced doesn’t stop at Trump, and she and her colleagues are ready for a fight. “There are efforts by folks on both sides of the aisle, but I’m not sure every point will make it into the final package,” she explained. “We understand the political dynamics we are up against.”