By Andrea Johnson, Senior Counsel for State Policy, National Women’s Law Center
When #MeToo went viral in October 2017, there was a scramble by state and federal lawmakers to meet the bravery of the survivors coming forward and enact meaningful, substantive policy reforms to stop and prevent sexual harassment. Our phones at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) rang off the hook with calls from state and federal legislators urgently trying to figure out what they could do to address sexual harassment in their communities. We spent much of 2018 flying and video streaming into states from California to Rhode Island, and Colorado to Texas, to testify in front of newly formed sexual harassment committees and task forces. In a few short months, well over 100 bills were introduced in state legislatures to toughen protections against harassment in workplaces and schools. And at least 11 states enacted legislation to strengthen transparency, accountability, and prevention measures in workplaces.
Underlying this scramble was no doubt a concern that MeToo was just a moment, not a movement. That the political will to enact long overdue reforms to our sexual harassment laws would soon die out.
But as state legislative sessions began again this year, over 300 state legislators representing 40 states and the District of Columbia came forward and loudly declared that they are committed to supporting survivors and working to address sexual harassment.
These legislators—hailing from all corners of the country and both sides of the aisle—signed a letter of commitment to strengthen protections against sexual harassment and violence at work, in schools, homes, and communities by 2020. In signing this “#20Statesby2020” initiative, they pledged to work with survivors and the communities most seriously affected by sexual violence—including women of color, immigrants, and LBGTQIA individuals—to create concrete solutions to end sexual abuse.
State legislators have been at the forefront of the policy response to MeToo and they know real change requires a sustained commitment from lawmakers to addressing the long list of needed policy reforms. They also know that last fall, voters demanded leaders who champion safety and dignity for all survivors. And now with historically high numbers of women serving in state legislatures, many with their own MeToo stories, state legislators know they must continue to push for MeToo policy reforms; they cannot wait for Congress to act.
In the first few weeks of 2019, we have already seen state legislators working to strengthen protections against sexual harassment, and in some states, all forms of harassment and discrimination in the workplace:
- Legislators in Texas have introduced a whole series of MeToo bills, including legislation to ensure all workplaces are covered by anti-harassment protections, regardless of size.
- States like Maine and Oregon are working to limit the use of nondisclosure agreements that force victims of harassment and discrimination into silence and sweep harassment under the rug.
- Oregon is also seeking to extend the statute of limitations for bringing harassment and discrimination claims since too many victims have been shut out from relief due to unreasonably short periods for filing complaints.
- Massachusetts is working on mandating employers provide employees with sexual harassment prevention trainings.
- And, next week, New York will be holding a long-sought after hearing for survivors and advocates to weigh in on lawmakers’ efforts to strengthen the state’s anti-harassment laws.
At a time when partisan politics seems to have reached a fever pitch, conservative and progressive legislators alike, in states from South Carolina to Oregon, have been speaking out and pushing for long overdue reforms to our anti-harassment laws, many of them motivated and united by their own MeToo stories. They also recognize that fighting for MeToo policy reforms is about #FightingForFamilies. If we are fighting for good jobs and economic security for families, we must be fighting to stop sexual harassment because it directly threatens the ability of those targeted to get and keep a good job, to succeed at work, and to care and provide for their families.
We commend those who are #FightingForFamilies in our state capitols and seeking to build a better world in the #MeToo era. We look forward to seeing the progress that 2019 brings as we strive towards #20Statesby2020.