The #MeToo Movement has brought stories of sexual harassment to light in virtually every sector of American life. Revelations last year from the entertainment industry of pervasive and persistent sexual harassment set off a cascade of similar tales in industries from restaurant and hotel workers to corporate camps — and, of course, politics.
It’s no secret politics has been a boys’ club. In Illinois, two leading Democrats were recently accused of sexual harassment: Rep. Lou Lang resigned as deputy House majority leader in May after accusations were leveled against him, and state Sen. Ira Silverstein stepped down in November as majority caucus chairman after a woman accused him of sending inappropriate messages.
In response to the national and state harassment allegations, two lawmakers and the state comptroller are traveling Illinois, gathering stories from women in politics — or who want to be in politics — about barriers that keep them out of leadership roles. The Anti-Harassment, Equality and Access Panel has held meetings in Champaign, Chicago and the Metro East, and will next hear stories from women in Springfield and Carbondale.
And, as it turns out, those stories are about a whole lot more than sexual harassment.
Comptroller Susana Mendoza told me on Monday that the panel’s work has become about elevating women into leadership positions around the state — with the eventual goal of Illinois becoming the first state to boast a majority of women in the Legislature. At this point, she says, Illinois’ Legislature is about 35 percent female. And, she says, that happened organically, in spite of factors that prevented women from participating.
“Women ran against the party and ultimately got elected,” she says women serving in office now.
Once those women got elected, she says, their parties supported them. But she says one goal of the panel is to find ways parties can actively encourage women to get involved.
“(Sexual harassment) is an issue that is pervasive across … parties, industries, public and private — it just exists everywhere,” Mendoza says. “What we can do to address sexual harassment is look at the (political) party structure.”
“We’re going to do something really amazing that no one has ever done,” she says. “And get behind this effort of putting more women in office, and doing it intentionally.”
The panel — on which state Rep. Carol Ammons and state Sen. Melinda Bush also serve — is starting that effort by listening. Mendoza said panel meetings are a safe space — for women only. Mendoza says the meetings provide a physical place for women to talk amongst themselves, without “men in the room to determine what the agenda is going to be.”
The panel will pool the stories and recommendations they hear in those sessions for a report, which they are planning to release next month, to provide guidelines for intentionally putting women into politics. Mendoza says she hopes the Legislature will be inspired to take action based on the report, but says for now, it’s about applying pressure to party leadership.
“What can parties do to do a better job of elevating women within the party,” Mendoza says of a main question the panel is asking.
Women should be running at the county and municipal levels, too, Mendoza says. “And then when a vacancy opens at state level … you shouldn’t just have a pool of men ready and waiting to run, we’d have a team of women who have worked — who understand the issues, are experienced, and are just waiting to be pulled up.”
Mendoza says she heard a story about a female candidate who used some women’s club money to hire a babysitter to watch children for women who wanted to attend an organizing meeting. And, the attendance was stellar.
“Why?” Mendoza asked. “Because someone was watching the kids while women were planning how to change the world.”
Mendoza stresses that the meetings are not exclusive to one party — although the three panel members are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Greens, Libertarians and Conservatives are encouraged to attend.
“It’s about women. Not about party,” she says.
The Carbondale meeting is on Thursday, July 26. For more details and to register, visit aheapanel.org. The meeting is private, and comments that are included in the report will be anonymous. Mendoza says if you’ve ever worked on a campaign, have run for office or are in elected office, the panel wants to hear from you.