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‘I’m brave now!’ Victims of sexual harassment say they are finding their voice through new legal defense program

Malin DeVoue, 27, reached out to the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund for help after she said she was fired from a Philadelphia hotel after complaining about being sexually harassed.
Malin DeVoue, 27, reached out to the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund for help after she said she was fired from a Philadelphia hotel after complaining about being sexually harassed. (Jessica Kourkounis/For The Washington Post)

Malin DeVoue had just gotten fired from a Philadelphia hotel last month after complaining about being sexually harassed when she turned on her TV. She saw Oprah Winfrey delivering a rousing speech at the Golden Globes, calling on women to speak up about abusive men and declaring, “Their time is up!”

DeVoue felt Winfrey was talking to her.

The 27-year-old cook went online and submitted her story to the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, an initiative created by Hollywood stars and activists to help victims of sexual harassment at work, especially those in low-wage jobs. She’s one of 1,569 people who have sought help from the fund since it launched Jan. 1, program officials said.

The fund, which was created in the aftermath of high-profile sexual assault and harassment charges against movie producer Harvey Weinstein and dozens of other famous men, has already raised $20 million to help victims without the means to pay for lawyers and public relations help.

Those resources are now being used to help waitresses, nurses, government employees, sales clerks and women in virtually every field who are coming forward, according new details released by the fund to The Washington Post.

“The breadth of it is certainly startling,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and chief executive of the National Women’s Law Center, which is administering the fund. “These women are just trying to do their jobs.”

Shonda Rhimes, the TV producer and screenwriter who is a founder of TIME’S UP and a major donor to the legal fund, said she can feel the momentum building to “create real change for the long haul.”

“People are reaching out from all over the world,” said Rhimes.

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movement is set to see another high-profile burst of attention Sunday in London, where many attendees of the British Academy Film Awards are expected to wear black. Among the prominent guests slated to attend the event is Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.

In the United States, the fund has recruited hundreds of attorneys from around the country to join its network, help with initial free consultations and determine what, if any, legal action should be taken. In select cases, the fund will defray the legal and public relations costs of pursuing harassment complaints and defending against related retaliation.

The stories that have come into the fund involve a wide range of alleged harassment in the workplace — including exposure to pornographic photos, obscene talk, and groping and assault, attorneys said. In many of the cases under review, the alleged harasser was in a more senior and higher-salaried position, they said.

It is too early to tell how many of the cases will result in lawsuits, since the alleged misconduct often did not occur recently. The statute of limitations in many states to file workplace harassment complaints is relatively short — as little as 180 days in some places.

And many of the women who have contacted the fund do not want their cases to be public. Rather, they want to end the culture of silence and, quite often, they simply want someone to believe them, according to attorneys familiar with the cases.

“I’m brave now! I’m brave now!” DeVoue said after she had told her story for the first time to a reporter.

DeVoue said that a male engineer at the hotel where she was head cook persistently followed her into the kitchen, asked her to go on dates, stared at her and made her feel “like a piece of meat.”

She said she reported his conduct to the manager after he did not respond to her requests to keep his distance. Instead of investigating his behavior, she said her supervisor fired her after she took two days off.

“I lost my job even though I was the victim,” DeVoue said.

Her Philadelphia attorney, Robert T. Vance Jr., said the hotel manager should have talked to witnesses when DeVoue complained.

Tina Tchen, former chief of staff for first lady Michelle Obama and a founder of the fund, said that before it existed, a lot of women didn’t know where to go to get help.

“The basic thing we are trying to accomplish is to fill that void and connect people to resources,” Tchen said. “The phones are ringing off the hook.”

Antuinette Miles, a 37-year-old mother of three, is one of those who has called. Miles, an Army veteran, had been chief of security for a private company running a jail in the District when a new supervisor started disparaging women’s ability to do the job, she said. The supervisor even told her she was too attractive for the position, she said. When others she worked with were offered transfers following a change in management, Miles said she was let go.

She was connected by the fund to Aaron Herreras, an attorney at KCNF Law in the District, who helped her file a civil suit in federal court alleging gender-based discrimination.

Some men, too, have contacted the fund to report workplace harassment, but so far they number only 30, or less than 2 percent, of those who have reached out, officials said.

Rashida Jones, an actress and activist who works with TIME’S UP, said Hollywood whistleblowers may have kicked off the movement, but it gained broader reach after a letter of solidarity by Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, an organization that fights sexual harassment and exploitation of women who work in vegetable, fruit and other farms.

The workplaces may be different, but the dynamic of the harassment is the same, she said: It is ultimately about women not having equal power at work.

“It’s all about power and parity,” she said.

Hilary Rosen, a Washington political strategist who also helped create the fund, said “the goal is to change behavior.”

“And the reason this behavior exists in the first place is that there is an imbalance of power,” she said.