Twenty-five years ago, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sworn in as the second woman justice on the Supreme Court. While many have come to know her as the Notorious RBG, a badge of honor she has rightfully earned through her willingness to lead change when possible and dissent when necessary, she began her legal career at a time when women were not welcomed in law schools, firms or the courts. Despite those obstacles, Justice Ginsburg broke glass ceilings and pioneered gender equality victories that transformed lives.
Prior to her appointment, Justice Ginsburg served as the Director of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU. She brought six groundbreaking cases before the supreme court, with the court ruling in her favor five times. Her approach to proving that “discrimination on the basis of sex was an injustice to everyone” was brilliant: she brought cases that involved sex discrimination against both men and women.
While a quarter century has passed since Justice Ginsburg took her rightful seat on the bench, the pursuit for gender equity in the workplace continues.
One of the defining issues of the Trump era has been our conversations surrounding sexual harassment and even assault, whether by politicians, corporate executives, or movie moguls. We know that this issue is not new, but its frequency has long been hidden. Trauma, helplessness and frustration prevents 90% of those who experience harassment in the workplace from filing a formal report. As painful as these experiences have been, the new freedom to discuss them is a common ground for women of all ages, and those who respect them, to stand on together.
The #MeToo movement has brought these stories to the forefront: we’re no longer only whispering them in the bathroom at work. We’re having these conversations in public and at family dinner tables, with our sons and relatives.
Justice Ginsburg spoke at length about this movement, and what it means for the future of gender equality, in a recent article with The Atlantic. She said, “I think [the #MeToo movement] will have staying power because people, and not only women, men as well as women, realize how wrong the behavior was and how it subordinated women. So we shall see, but my prediction is that it is here to stay.”
Aside from discussing this behavior and its effects in the open, we are long overdue for policy that prevents this behavior and protects those subjected to it.
Last month, members of the House of Representatives, including Representatives Lois Frankel and Lisa Blunt Rochester, introduced the bipartisan EMPOWER Act, aimed at combating workplace harassment and making it less dangerous for employees to come forward about inappropriate behavior. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate by Senators Kamala Harris and Lisa Murkowski. After seven Congressmen resigned over #MeToo issues this year, including the Congressman serving the area where I am a candidate, addressing this issue not only in our government office spaces, but in every office space, is an appropriate course of action.
However, despite the bipartisan impact of sexual harassment, to date legislation like the EMPOWER Act has not been embraced by the Republican party. The Republican leadership in the House and Senate has even stalled enactment of legislation passed last year by both the US House and Senate to address harassment in the halls of Congress, and to prevent the use of taxpayer dollars to settle complaints of such harassment, by preventing resolution of differences between the two bills.
It is not enough to pass legislation to level the playing field for women; we also need to ensure that they are not sidelined once they arrive, as newcomers in male-dominated environments. For example, although women were allowed to join the military, they had to fight to be given pay and benefits commensurate with their male peers, a case Justice Ginsburg argued and won before the Supreme Court.
It wasn’t until 1991 that sexual harassment began to be taken more seriously––not only in the courts, but also in everyday culture. The Tailhook scandal revealed deep seated misogyny among Department of Defense personnel, and led to sweeping reforms for women within the military. Anita Hill’s public testimony against Clarence Thomas expanded our public discourse on how positions of power impact harassment in the workplace.
In 1992, Anita Hill’s testimony inspired the last “Year of the Woman”, when record numbers of women ran for public office, particularly Congress. The recent exposure of “Me Too” issues in both public and private arenas has fueled a similar Year of the Women now —- as women, like myself, have been inspired to run for Congress to fight for equitable and respectful representation and treatment on behalf of ourselves, our daughters, and all those impacted.
The EMPOWER Act is a new opportunity for federal legislation to empower survivors of harassment to come forward, protecting them from retribution, making a non-disclosure a choice, not a requirement. We’ve taken a half-measure approach to addressing this issue, an issue that does not toe a party line, for far too long. Congress’ inaction compounds the damage and suppresses the voices of survivors, forcing them to hide behind non-disclosure agreements or to remain silent in the shadows of workplaces, on movie sets, in gymnastics facilities, office spaces, classrooms, newsrooms, you name it. Nearly 8 in 10 women has at least one #MeToo story of their own, and that is 8 too many.
We need to make it clear that the times have changed, that the old rules don’t apply. Sexual harassment in the workplace is no longer acceptable and cannot be brushed off as friendly banter or “locker room talk”. We need to continue the fight for equality championed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lily Ledbetter, Justice Ginsburg and others . We do that by signing the Empower Act into law.