#MeToo at the Colorado Capitol

The issue of sexual harassment and assault highlighted by the #MeToo movement extends well beyond Hollywood. In fact, it’s right here at our state capitol.

An anti-sexual harassment movement began when over 50 actresses came forward to report claims against film executive Harvey Weinstein last fall. The movement gained momentum when people began sharing their stories on social media platforms under the hashtag #MeToo — an idea created in 2006 by Tarana Burke.

The issue of sexual harassment and assault extends well beyond Hollywood. In fact, it’s right here at Colorado’s state capitol.

On March 2, the Colorado House of Representatives voted to expel Rep. Steve Lebsock based on sexual harassment allegations brought by five women (all deemed credible by an outside investigation). State Senator Randy Baumgardner was also accused of sexual harassment, but the Colorado Senate rejected the resolution to expel the senator.

These incidents are not only happening in Colorado’s state legislature, but all over the nation. Rep. Lebsock is the second state lawmaker in the U.S. to be expelled since the #MeToo movement began. The Associated Press found that at least 14 legislators in 10 states resigned from office in 2017 due to accusations of sexual harassment or misconduct, and at least 16 other legislators in over a dozen states faced other consequences.

The #MeToo movement at our state Capitol not only highlights the prevalence of sexual harassment – it speaks to the power dynamics that exist in our political system.

A recent study found that lawmakers are the most common group to harass others at the Colorado State Capitol, and that the people who are most often the targets are lobbyists, aides, and interns. The report also states that power dynamics play a large role in sexual harassment in the Capitol.

The New York Times reports that female lobbyists are especially vulnerable in both state and federal legislatures because unlike government employees, they often have no avenue to report sexual harassment complaints and receive due process.

Female lawmakers, lobbyists, and former legislative aides at the Colorado legislature submitted 100% of the most recent sexual harassment allegations against male legislators, which further points to the power dynamics within these gender roles.

Women are often excluded from participating in our democracy, as seen throughout history. Women won the right to vote in the United States less than 100 years ago and have traditionally been excluded from serving in public office. Today, women only make up about a quarter of seats in state legislatures across the country – despite making up half of the population.

Participating in our government has been even harder for women of color. It wasn’t until 1965 that women of color won voting protections. Serving in office also proves as a greater barrier for women of color, as they only make up 5 out of the 50 women who have served in the U.S. Senate throughout history.

While Colorado has one of the highest percentage of women in state legislatures, they still only make up 38% of seats. Our state has never had a female governor or U.S. senator – and Denver has never had a female mayor.

When women cannot safely serve as a lawmaker, lobbyist, aide, or intern, it creates yet another barrier to participating in our democracy.

Kady McFadden, the deputy director of the Sierra Club in Illinois, told The New York Times, “As important as it is to change the culture of sexual harassment, at the end of the day, this is about so much more. Men are leading our state governments, men are leading our corporations, men are leading our media organizations. This is about the ability of women and particularly women of color to be in leadership positions and be able to do their jobs.”                       

It is unacceptable that women cannot do their jobs or participate in democracy without fear of being sexually harassed or assaulted by their own colleagues. We must change our culture – both outside of politics and inside our state legislatures. This must be done not only for the safety and empowerment of women, but to ensure a strong and representative democracy.