The #MeToo Movement Takes Office After Winning Elections Across the U.S.
Midterm elections usher in a new era of legislators who spoke openly about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault.
For more than a year now, the #MeToo movement has been a cultural force, spurring thousands of women to share their experiences of sexual abuse and ousting hundreds of alleged abusers from positions of power.
Now, that force has a vote.
An unprecedented number of candidates for Congress and state offices shared their own stories of sexual assault and harassment this election cycle. They made videos supporting of the #MeToo movement, visited charities for survivors, and publicly called out the abusers in their midst. When a woman came forward with allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanagh after more than 30 years, several candidates took to Twitter to share why they, too, never reported their assaults.
On Tuesday night, many of them won.
Among the most prominent: Gretchen Whitmer, who gained national attention after revealing herself as a rape survivor in an impassioned state Senate speech in 2013. The bill she was arguing against at the time passed, but Whitmer said it only motivated her to work harder. On Tuesday, she was elected Michigan’s second-ever female governor.
In a video recorded during her gubernatorial campaign, Whitmer pledged her support for the #MeToo movement.
“I’m here to lend my voice to this movement and encourage others to do that,” she said at the time. “Because it’s only by talking about the issues that we face everyday that we can actually solve them.”
She wasn’t the only successful candidate to say as much. Ayanna Pressley, a rape and childhood sexual-abuse survivor, won her race on Tuesday to become the first black woman to represent Massachusetts. Anna Eskamani, who spoke openly about her own experience with workplace sexual harassment on the campaign trail, beat her Republican opponent for the Florida state House and flipped the seat from red to blue. Both Colorado candidate Faith Winter and Pennsylvania candidate Katie Muth won their state Senate races after publicly calling on fellow Democrats accused of sexual misconduct to step down.
Julie McClain Downey, senior director of campaign communications at Emily’s List, said the victories spoke to a trend she saw throughout the campaign cycle: Women voters responded to hearing that they were not alone.
“There were thousands of women who woke up after the election in 2016 and thought, ‘Good God, what has happened?’” she told The Daily Beast. “And seeing all of this play out in a way where suddenly you realize that you're not alone, and you can use your voice and your vote to elect someone who will address these issues and not just sweep them under the rug, is pretty remarkable."
The #MeToo movement has already proved its political strength in some ways. A Washington Post tally found that one U.S. senator and eight representatives had been ousted over sexual-misconduct allegations since the movement began, and an Atlantic analysis found at least 25 candidates prematurely ended their campaigns over similar allegations. At least 30 state lawmakers resigned or were forced out of office over sexual misconduct allegations in the last year, according to the Associated Press.
Voters are also responding to the issue. In a recent survey from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, 52 percent of respondents said they would never vote for someone accused of sexual harassment, and 51 percent said they wouldn’t support someone who didn’t make addressing sexual harassment a priority. Thirty percent said the current climate made them more likely to vote for women in general.
Yet the laws have changed little. Congress has yet to pass an anti-harassment bill that covers its own members, and still requires them and their staffers to complete therapy and sign a nondisclosure agreement before proceeding with sexual-misconduct claims. Just a half-dozen state legislatures have banned the use of public money in sexual harassment settlements since the #MeToo movement started, according to the AP, and only 20 percent newly allow for the external investigation of complaints. One-fifth of states still do not require lawmakers to participate in sexual harassment training.
The question now is whether the public survivors that #MeToo ushered into office will codify its gains in law. From eliminating the rape kit backlog to passing the Equal Rights Amendment, experts say there is no shortage of topics they could can address. And research shows that politicians are more likely to address issues that affect their identity, meaning survivors may be more likely to pass bills protecting victims.
Downey said she expects this new crop of officials to legislate differently.
“I think that with more candidates like this—who know what it’s like to have to walk through a parking lot with their keys between their fingers or suffer at the hands of a boss who’s a little bit off-color—that [their] experiences will shape the way that we govern,” she said.
They could also spark a backlash. While the #MeToo movement still enjoys broad public support, recent polls show some voters are souring on it, with 40 percent saying the movement has gone too far. And the Senate showed the limits of their support when they confirmed Justice Kavanaugh despite the multiple sexual misconduct allegations against him.
Caroline Heldman, a politics professor at Occidental College and co-founder of End Rape on Campus, cautioned that the #MeToo movement had yet to fully play out in the hyperpartisan world of Washington. She warned that public survivors could face retaliation in the guise of party politics.
“I do think that adversaries will use this against women who have been public, in order to discredit them; in order to demean them,” she said. “I think public survivors will face a great deal of retaliation, which will be cloaked in the form of partisanship but will be ugly and misogynistic.”
Perhaps no one knows this better than Katie Porter, a candidate for California’s 45th House District, who took out a restraining order against her abusive husband years before mounting her bid. She only spoke publicly about the experience after she says her primary opponent started a whisper campaign about the messy divorce. (Her opponent’s campaign denied this.) At one point, the law professor stumbled on a tweet referring to her as “restraining order Porter.”
Porter narrowly lost her bid to unseat Republican incumbent Mimi Walters on Tuesday. Rachel Crooks, one of more than 20 women who have accused Donald Trump of harassment, also lost her highly publicized race for Ohio state legislature. Congressional candidates Martha McSally and Katie Hill, who both spoke about being sexual assault survivors, were locked in races that were too close to call on Wednesday morning.
Whatever the outcome of these races, however, Heldman said they had already made change. For most of America history, she said, survivors stayed silent because it was seen as a sign of weakness to have been abused. Not so anymore.
“These are powerful women who are acknowledging that they have been violated,” she said. “I think it actually writes the script of survivors being weak in a profound way. It re-conceives of survivorship of being about strength rather than being about vulnerability.”
“I don’t think it can be understated how symbolically important it is,” she added.