SPRINGFIELD — Don’t let a Capitol elevator door close if there’s a man in there alone.
In an office or conference room, don’t let a man close the door behind you.
Those were tips given to a female assistant to a Democratic lobbyist as she first stepped into the State Capitol in Springfield. The lobbyist said he gave her advice about policy and who to meet. But his female co-workers immediately gave the woman — an Ivy-league law school graduate — tips on how to avoid being sexual harassed, including what time to leave if she didn’t want unwanted attention at a Springfield bar.
The stories are not new. But tales of sexual harassment — everything from comments about breasts and hips and legs to groping, and propositions for sex — are rampant in the Capitol this week during the veto session as an open letter has opened the floodgates for women to speak out about their encounters.
Inspired by the dozens of women who have spoken out about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, a group of women in Illinois politics began a “Say No More” Facebook group aimed at allowing women to tell their stories. And more than 150 women have signed a letter that describes harassment endured by elected officials, lobbyists, consultants and others in politics.
The point is not just to put a spotlight on the the abuse, but to create a dialogue to make the harassment stop.
Both the letter and the Facebook group got the attention of lawmakers. Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan on Tuesday said he’ll advance legislation that would require yearly sexual harassment training for “everyone,” including lobbyists, staff and legislators. Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said he fully supports such legislation. State Sen. Daniel Biss, who is also running for governor, filed a similar Senate bill on Tuesday.
Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office didn’t say whether the governor supports either bill, but noted Rauner mandated a sexual harassment-free workplace for state employees through an executive order two years ago. Spokeswoman Patty Schuh, too, said state agency employees also receive required sexual harassment prevention training.
State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, who signed the open letter, said the campaign is not about naming names. It’s about making women feel they don’t have to be ashamed or silenced about their experiences.
“That open letter was never intended to start hauling people out of the Capitol and criminalizing a whole bunch of stuff. That’s not the issue. The issue is this survives in silence. And there are a number of people who are tired of being silenced,” said Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields.
“Anytime you’re talking about changing the culture around something it starts with robust conversation. There used to be a time when you were the only black lobbyist in the room, you could hear people make racial jokes. And black folks had to grin and bear it if you want to work in the Capitol. There was a time when there were no women lobbyists. So for the first ones that were here, I can’t even imagine what it was like for them.”
Has she experienced sexual harassment?
“Oh, of course.”
Sen. Kimberly Lightford, too, has been subjected to inappropriate comments at the Capitol, but said she believed it happens in any workplace with a hierarchy: “I think that when you’re just around people who are in powerful positions, men and women alike, they think they can do that.”
“For me, it was a legislator when I first got here, and he would always say something about my legs. No matter what, he would say something about my legs. He would say something about something that was inappropriate. And I think one day I gave him a look,” Lightford, D-Maywood, said, adding she experienced inappropriate comments from another legislator that stopped when she reminded him he was the same age as her grandfather.
State Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, said she hopes the conversations expand from sexual harassment to battling sexism in politics.
“I think we get so used to it, it almost becomes something that we work around, coping mechanisms to get around sexism and sexual comments and the objectification of women. But I think the more deeper issue I want involved in any deeper conversation are the systemic issues that exist in the workplace for women and are alive and well in Springfield,” Williams said.
“It goes well beyond inappropriate comments or bad behavior. It’s things like being included in the mix for meetings, the number of women elected, the number of women we see in higher positions in the media. … As we address those, we’ll naturally contribute to a much better climate for women.”