A way forward: Anti-harassment panel looks for practical solutions

Throughout July, three prominent Illinois politicians working together as the Anti-Harassment, Equality and Access Panel (AHEA) has been holding meetings across the state in order to engage women in conversation about their experiences of sexual harassment, inequality and barriers to access in the political arena, whether as candidates, campaign staffers or officeholders. The members and co-founders of the panel – State Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, State Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, and Illinois Comptroller Susana A. Mendoza – will issue a report of their findings and recommendations in late August or early September. The panel held its meeting in Springfield on July 23 and will conclude with an event in Carbondale on July 26. 

The AHEA is a nonprofit 501(c) (4) organization and its meetings are attended by registration only with no media access, to allow participants to comfortably share their often traumatic experiences. The organization’s report will consist of guidelines, based in part on feedback from these meetings, with the aim of fostering safe, supportive environments for women on campaigns and in political organizations as well as ways to move more women into leadership positions and electing more women to office. It has no authority to investigate allegations of sexual harassment. 

“We have learned some things that maybe we have individually felt, heard or seen in our own experiences,” said Ammons. “But to gather these stories from women all over the state, I think, shows some commonality and also brings things to light that maybe we weren’t thinking about as barriers to women engaging in the political process.” Ammons said that the panel has attracted a broad variety of women from different walks of life, ages and experiences and the meetings have been eye-opening. “One of the women said that she was having difficulty getting support from her local party. Resources have been a huge barrier to women, not only in deciding to run for office but once they are in office, the power dynamics shift and they don’t have the support base necessary so they can be ultimately successful.”

The panel is self-described as nonpartisan, in spite of the fact that all three members are Democrats. “We have attempted to make the space open to all who want to come and share their stories, regardless of party,” Ammons said. In fact, Illinois has the sixth largest number of women in its legislature in the country, with the overwhelming majority being Democrats. But inclusivity across both party and gender lines is described as essential by the panel members. “Over the last several meetings we’ve gotten the sense that men – partners, friends, allies – are starting to say they not only want to help, they want to be in the conversation. Ultimately, we want our male allies, friends and partners to help us to move this forward,” Ammons said.

 “The panel’s process is forward-looking,” said Bush. “We are trying to change a culture. It has been a learning experience for me, to talk to these women who have experienced sexual harassment and inequality.” Bush described the panels overall as a good experience. “We’ve gathered lots of information, and have done lots of interviews. As much as we want women to have equality in representation, we also want to have more women of color, more from the LGBT community. Our representation is going to better represent us if it looks like us.”

 One consistent theme across the meetings has been that women want policies in place so when something happens, they know how things are handled. “If they have been sexually harassed they know where to go and they know it’s going to be taken seriously, They also need to know they are not going to be punished for speaking out,” Bush said. “One way to deal with this is bystander training – teaching people what to do if they should see someone who is being sexually harassed, bullied or mistreated. Many times people say nothing, they walk away – they know it was wrong but they don’t do anything about it.”

“The game changer will be when there is a significantly larger number of women in elected offices than there is today,” said Mendoza, “because the policies that will be set will have women at the forefront, not as an afterthought – or frankly, a no-thought.” She expressed hope that the work being done by the panel might inspire a movement to make Illinois the first state in the country to become female-majority. “Having the Illinois legislature become female-majority at some point will be a significant game-changer in all sorts of different policies.” 

Mendoza said entering the political arena is even more difficult for women of color and LGBTQ candidates. “There are so many obstacles to entry, discrimination being one of them, but when we are in control of the policies moving forward, that is going to make a significant difference, not just for Illinois but across the country.” 

One obstacle to entry for many potential young female candidates is motherhood. “Nobody will tell a guy, ‘Shouldn’t you be at home taking care of your kids?’ Or, ‘What are you gonna do about your children, don’t you feel guilty?’” Mendoza said. “Not to mention that it becomes that much harder for women to run for office when they have young kids. What do you do with your children if you don’t have a babysitter? Do you take them with you all the time? Is that even plausible? If women were in these positions of majority, things would be different.” 

“We were all woken up by the last presidential election,” said Bush. “I think many women believed that we had a good chance at having our first woman president but then we saw a man elected who made some really misogynist statements and said some pretty awful things and people seemed to turn their heads from those things. We don’t want to turn our heads anymore, we want to stand firmly in our own space and be respected.”

Ammons said that while the culture shift, as evidenced by the #MeToo movement, seems to be moving forward, progress is less obvious in the arena of politics, where there is a lot of catching up to be done. “I have watched this process unfold not with shock and awe but with confirmation that it is time for people to take responsibility for the culture that they have created and actually change it – and by doing so, create measures of accountability that make it go away permanently.”  

Scott Faingold can be reached at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.