After #MeToo, state legislatures make changes

Across the nation, lawmakers pledged to take legislative action on sexual harassment. We’ve tracked how they followed through in past months.

Data analysis by The Associated Press | Rebecca Asoulin and Jacob Turcotte/Staff
Data analysis by The Associated Press | Rebecca Asoulin and Jacob Turcotte/Staff

After the #MeToo movement picked up steam in late 2017, dozens of politicians faced sexual misconduct allegations. Statehouses promised change.

In early January, three-quarters of state legislative chambers were considering or had implemented changes to their own sexual misconduct policies. As of August, about half have taken some action, according to data collected by The Associated Press.

These changes, from most commonly implemented to least, include beefing up training about sexual harassment, requiring external investigations, adopting anti-retaliation protections, and banning the use of public funds for confidential settlements.

While changes have been made, there have also been stumbling blocks. Rhode Island Democratic state Sen. Gayle Goldin cosponsored a bill with training and anti-retaliatory components. A dedicated House task force there also proposed several bills. None passed. One barrier, by Senator Goldin’s account: too few women in the legislature. She says sexual harassment is often dismissed as an unimportant issue by majority-male statehouses.

But, she adds, “We are going to see women continuing to push through the electoral process and through our statehouses across this country to address sexual harassment and sexism more broadly. It really is about thinking, ‘How do we stop baking … inequality and oppression into everything?’ ”

On the national level, Senate and House efforts to reconcile two bills updating Congress’s sexual harassment policy have stalled.

For Massachusetts employment attorney Rebecca Pontikes, this wave of activism reminds her of 1992. That year, she arrived in Washington as a 20-year-old in the wake of the Anita Hill hearings. “The Year of the Woman” was supposed to change everything, though not much did.

Laws can never include “a laundry list long enough of prohibitive behaviors,” she says. So the effectiveness of legal action depends upon enforcement and broad interpretation.

"It makes us all feel good to change a law and say we're done,” says Ms. Pontikes. “But … the cultural shift and the legal shift have to go together.”

Above, see maps of progress showing which states are bolstering protections against sexual misconduct in statehouses since the start of #MeToo.

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