Illinois among first states to pass bills in wake of #MeToo movement
In late October, an open letter detailing “#MeToo” stories in Illinois government became part of the larger national story about sexual misconduct, discrimination and harassment. “Ask any woman who has lobbied the halls of the Capitol, staffed Council Chambers, or slogged through brutal hours on the campaign trail,” the letter begins. “Misogyny is alive and well in this industry.”
It then recounts specific stories of unwanted sexual advances, crude jokes, and inappropriate texts and comments. “Illinois deserves responsible stewards of power. Let’s demand better,” concludes the letter, signed by more than 300 legislators, lobbyists, staffers and policymakers.
It didn’t take long for the General Assembly to respond.
Because of the timing of the letter, the national #MeToo movement and a fall veto session, Illinois became one of the first states to pass legislation in the wake of the heightened awareness about sexual discrimination and harassment.
“We took some preliminary and basic steps,” Illinois Sen. Karen McConnaughay says. SB 402 specifically prohibits the sexual harassment of legislators and lobbyists; requires state agencies to adopt harassment policies; and mandates that all state officials, employees and lobbyists complete yearly, in-person training.
During that same veto session, legislators also passed resolutions (HR 687 and SR 1076) setting up separate House and Senate task forces. They will develop recommendations by the end of next year for further legislative action.
“I know that the women in our Statehouse are going to push very hard to make changes that make a real difference,” says McConnaughay, who is serving on the Senate task force and also is part of a newly formed, bipartisan Women’s Caucus in the state’s upper chamber.
As McConnaughay notes, the situation in Illinois is not unique — reports of sexual harassment and other misconduct have recently been reported in multiple U.S. statehouses and led to the resignations of state legislators. The House and Senate task forces, too, are not limited to looking at state government. They will review the consequences of discrimination and harassment in Illinois’ public and private sectors.
“What we’ve seen from the recent [high-profile] stories involving movie moguls and media stars is the prevalence of people in positions of power, or perceived power, harassing others and engaging in what I would call predatory behavior,” she says. “What makes it so relevant in government is that the people who make laws are seen as being in a position of power.”
Her hope is that the work of these task forces leads to a clear delineation (set in policy or law) of what sexual harassment is and how it should be handled. What exactly should be considered predatory conduct, for example, or inappropriate behavior in the workplace?
McConnaughay also says some specific reforms are needed in how ethics complaints, including claims of sexual harassment and discrimination, are handled within her state’s legislature. For example, the position of legislative inspector general — which investigates ethics complaints against members of the Illinois General Assembly as well as legislative staff — sat vacant for three years.
“That appointment power should not be in the hands of the General Assembly,” McConnaughay believes. “It needs to be an individual who is independently selected.” Further, she suggests changes in the makeup of the Legislative Ethics Commission, currently an eight-member group of lawmakers that rules on ethics complaints brought to it by the inspector general.
“For transparency and accountability, I think we need to get laypeople on there as well,” says McConnaughay, who serves on the commission. The entire process of hearing and investigating harassment complaints needs to be overhauled, she adds, to encourage victims to come forward.