Female Lawmakers Hope for Stronger Harassment Policies
The Lowell Sun
Nov. 30, 2017
By J.D. Capelouto
BOSTON -- As allegations of misogyny and sexual harassment swirl both inside and outside of the Statehouse, local female lawmakers areas said leaders on Beacon Hill should take tough and swift action against harassers on a zero-tolerance basis.
Though none of the representatives and senators interviewed by The Sun said they have personally been victims of sexual harassment during their time in the Statehouse, they said they take issues of sexism in the workplace seriously.
Dialogue surrounding a culture of misogyny on Beacon Hill began when The Boston Globe published a column last month highlighting the stories of a dozen anonymous women who said they were victims of sexual misconduct in and around the Statehouse.
"I think it's something that women face everywhere, no matter what the situation is, what the field is," said state Sen. Cindy Friedman, whose district includes Billerica and Burlington. "It's pretty rampant as we can see, as we've learned -- all the stories have come out in different fields."
Following the harassment allegations against Hollywood magnate Harvey Weinstein, more and more people have begun to declare "#MeToo" and tell their story as a victim. Accused harassers from Hollywood (actor Kevin Spacey) to politics (U.S. Rep. John Conyers) to the media (former "Today Show" host Matt Lauer) are facing a form of public reckoning on a scale never seen before.
And the Massachusetts Legislature is taking notice.
"In light of the more recent accounts, the Senate's taking it very seriously," said state Sen. Eileen Donoghue of Lowell.
Since the Globe's report was published, Senate President Stan Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo both said they found the allegations alarming and spoke out against a culture of misogyny. DeLeo ordered that the House counsel review policies and recommend updates by March.
Rosenberg said he called for a quiet review and update of the Senate's policies when he took over as president in 2015. This week, he disclosed that he has dealt with two sexual-misconduct complaints -- one against a former intern, the other against a visitor to the Statehouse.
State Sen. Anne Gobi of Spencer said she was "very disturbed" to hear the stories of misconduct.
"The Statehouse should be a place that people can feel safe coming to work, and when that's compromised at all, it's not good for the Legislature, it's not good for the state," she said.
State Rep. Natalie Higgins of Leominster, a former rape crisis counselor, said this kind of atmosphere is present "in every social situation where we have any kinds of hierarchy" -- and the Statehouse is no exception.
Higgins revealed earlier this year that she was a victim of sexual assault when she was 24 and preparing to work at a domestic-violence clinic. She was assaulted at a place she thought of as safe, she said.
Friedman said she had heard stories of misconduct during the time she was a staff member in the Statehouse, and has personally been a victim of harassment in her professional experience before working on Beacon Hill. The senator managed hardware and software engineering groups for 20 years before entering politics.
She said Rosenberg seems serious about tackling the problem and crafting the best possible policies.
"I really believe that if you want to stop certain behaviors from happening, it needs to come from the top," Friedman said, "and people who are in a position of power need to understand that if they engage in this kind of behavior that there's consequences, and they will be strong and they will be swift."
Other female lawmakers interviewed from both chambers echoed those sentiments, and appreciated the attention that has been put on the issue.
"All staff and members have been notified of the House's sexual-harassment policies have been provided with clear examples of harassment and have been given information about how to report inappropriate behavior," state Rep. Jennifer Benson of Lunenburg said in a statement. "I trust that the review ordered by Speaker DeLeo will strengthen protections for staff and visitors."
Benson said the House leadership's review is "well underway."
Donoghue and Gobi said the Caucus of Women Legislators has worked on sexual-abuse issues in the past, and is beginning to turn more attention to the Statehouse's own misconduct policies.
"A woman's voice needs to be heard in this entire discussion," Gobi said.
The female lawmakers said any victim should feel safe coming forward. The women interviewed by the Globe said they feared losing their career or reputation if they publicly named themselves or their offenders.
"I think we need more training in all our workplaces about who is the right person to report to" so the investigation is treated properly, Higgins said.
Donoghue said a policy of zero tolerance for misconduct is an important start. Sexual-harassment training should also be required for people in temporary positions, such as interns, and not just full-time staff members, she said.
"I think people didn't feel comfortable, they feared for their jobs, they feared it would be swept under the rug," Donoghue said of the atmosphere surrounding misconduct. "If they do find themselves in the unfortunate position that they feel victimized, they (should) know who to go to and how it will be handled. And that it will be handled."
Follow J.D. Capelouto on Twitter @jdcapelouto.