Women will be gathering in Washington and in cities across the nation for the third year in a row this weekend, demanding equality, representation and an end to what we’ve silently accepted for so many years — sexual harassment, sexual assault and being demeaned in the workplace.
There was the lawmaker demanding nude photos from an underling, then flaming her all over town when she reported him.
There were the six women — including a 19-year-old on a fellowship — who testified that a senator made unwanted and relentless passes at them.
And there was the staffer who filed a police report after the distinguished legislator she worked for allegedly locked her in his office and forced unwanted oral sex on her. She also said he pushed her to drop the case when she reported it.
That’s Washington for you, right?
Not in these cases.
These things happened in Albany, Sacramento and Annapolis. And they’ve been going on in state capitols across America for ages.
It used to be that Johnson, the 34-year-old senior counsel specializing in state policy for the National Women’s Law Center, got calls from one or two states every year. They were dealing with a pregnancy discrimination issue or maybe equal pay.
“But then my work pretty dramatically shifted with Harvey Weinstein and the Me Too movement,” Johnson said.
Stories surfaced about sexual harassment in Congress, in Hollywood and on Main Street. Dozens of allegations also emerged from state legislatures.
The Associated Press counted 76 legislators accused in less than two years, allegations that made states want to clean up their own acts.
Trust us, Hartford can get just as gross as Hollywood.
Johnson lived on planes, in hotel rooms, answering calls to help legislatures make sense of all this. And she heard from states across the political spectrum.
“It was exciting to receive calls from advocates in South Carolina, because legislators — both Republicans and Democrats — wanted to do something,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, sexual harassment is a near-universal experience that crosses party lines.”
And it’s universal when it comes to employers, too.
Two years after the massive Women’s March of 2017 followed by the #MeToo movement, Congress has done little or nothing to address workplace harassment, letting the biggest piece of legislation — the Empower Act — fester in last year’s session.
Never mind Washington. States are taking on the issue.
More than 100 bills have been introduced in the past year to deal with sexual harassment at work. Eleven states passed meaningful measures. And as most state legislatures opened for sessions this month, dozens more are on deck, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
Speed is essential, Johnson is learning. Because in today’s bananas news cycle, “the Me Too movement can peter out,” she said. “It’s already happening.”
So she’s racing from airport to airport and state capitols, hoping to make progress within the tiny window that our ADHD culture allows. Most of last year focused on state legislatures cleaning house. Now, they’re trying to use the momentum to pass laws that affect private employers and the toughest, most nuanced tool that harassers use to keep harassing and to keep their own jobs — the NDA, the nondisclosure agreement.
At least 16 states introduced bills last year to restrict NDAs. Those bills became law in Arizona, Maryland, New York, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington.
In Maryland, the case against NDAs was especially urgent, given the scandal in Annapolis.
Maryland Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D) was removed from leadership positions as deputy whip and chairman of a subcommittee on criminal justice last summer.
Numerous women testified that the lawmaker from Baltimore bestowed unwanted kisses and comments. But the most serious allegation came from an incident that happened in 2004 — when a woman said Anderson locked her in his office and forced oral sex on her. She complained at the time to the human resources office of the State House, but she said the matter was mishandled. So she made a police report in 2017, inspired by the #MeToo movement.
The case did not involve an NDA, but it did involve something just as pernicious — the pressure to stay silent.
Johnson and her colleague Maya Raghu worked with the state to pass the law against NDAs and other waivers “of substantive and procedural rights related to sexual harassment or retaliation claims in an employment contract or policy,” according to the law center. The law also protects employees against retaliation for refusing to enter into such agreements.
They are currently working with local D.C. legislators to create a similar law in the city.
Johnson has a letter that she’s trying to get at least one legislator from every state to sign. She has 250 signatures from 40 states.
It’s a declaration of war on the culture of sexual harassment and silence, announcing that:
“We cannot wait for Congress to act.
States must lead in this fight.”
And they are.
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