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I was a candidate for Congress in 2017 when the #MeToo movement gained widespread coverage in the media. The public reckoning over the last several years has forced accountability for some high profile people in power for what was once considered acceptable, tolerable, or at worst, a gray area in workplace behavior.
As one of the youngest women ever to serve in Congress, less than a year into my career as an elected official, I was one of the public figures caught up in this as the world learned—through nonconsensually taken and leaked intimate images—about my own involvement in such a grey area: a consensual relationship with a woman who worked for me.
Nearly two years later, we have now learned, through brave survivors and a subsequent investigation by the New York Attorney General, that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo broke the law and acted in ways that we have now determined shouldn’t be tolerated. Had this happened even just five years ago, these women likely would not have come forward, and the behavior almost certainly would have been excused.
But let’s be clear: Cuomo’s behavior wasn’t just tolerated by society as recently as a few years ago, it was almost expected. It was overlooked. Shrugged off. Swept under the rug. Just something we had to deal with from men, especially men in positions of power.
The fact that’s no longer the case—that it has become clear we won’t tolerate that behavior anymore, and that we’re not expected to—marks real progress.
As things were coming to light over the past several months with Cuomo, I sometimes caught myself thinking defensively of him. Well, ok, sure that’s gross, but what do you expect from a man pushing 70 who has had that kind of status and power for so long? Should he really have to resign?
Nearly every day for the past two years, I’ve faced the question—from myself and others—should I have resigned?
Was it warranted? Was it right?
Was it worth the cost of a hard-fought blue seat in Congress that reverted to Republican once I left? If I hadn’t resigned, I would likely still hold a seat in Congress today.
So each time a scandal comes up, I think about it as a fellow lawmaker who has stood on the other side of what some people characterize as a #MeToo scandal with its own problematic power dynamics.
I was a politician for only a few short years. And as much as I relate to, and in some ways can sympathize with, what Cuomo was going through as he considered resigning, there’s a much bigger piece of who I am that I identify with far more: being a woman.
As a woman, it is not Cuomo I relate to. And it is not Cuomo I can even remotely sympathize with.
It is the woman who stood paralyzed as a powerful man touched parts of her body, as if he had the right to. Me too.
It is the woman who had to push away her feelings of violation because she knew people would say she was overreacting or was a troublemaker. Me too.
It is every woman in the AG report—because I, like so many other women, have gone through most of those experiences, many times over, in nearly every job I have held throughout my career, even as a teenager.
Taking down a guy like Gov. Cuomo is an important signal that these kinds of behaviors are no longer ok. That there is a line in the sand now that, if crossed, has real consequences.
But if we truly want to end the near universality of women experiencing such violations on a daily basis, we need more than the resignation of one powerful man. A lot more.
We need to shift the fundamental power dynamics that have existed not in just the short years since #MeToo, but in the lifetimes and generations before that.
Shifting that dynamic will take a lot. It may even take decades. We will have to level the playing field by instituting equal pay, paid family leave, ensuring reproductive freedom, and so much more.
But honestly, we need something far more basic. We need a sense of safety and to correct the inherent physical vulnerability we face every day.
One in five women has experienced rape or attempted rape.
Nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner.
Every 16 hours, a woman is shot and killed by a current or former intimate partner.
The harassment of women in the workplace and elsewhere is simply an extension of the longstanding and pervasive problem of violence against women.
In order to see a fundamental shift in power dynamics and the ways in which women are treated daily, we need legislators at every level to acknowledge and act on these basic realities. Our lives literally depend on it.
And guess what? There’s already a bipartisan bill that is currently sitting in the Senate that gives powerful lawmakers an opportunity to show us that they actually care about women and our safety: the Violence Against Women Act.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was the first ever federal law to thoroughly address the violence that women face, from domestic abuse to sexual assault and stalking. Members of Congress are working to reauthorize VAWA to include new provisions that are crucial to women’s safety today. The reauthorization passed in the House and now sits stalled in the Senate, where many Republicans are opposing some of the bill’s vital gun safety measures.
Passing VAWA would be far more meaningful than calling for someone’s resignation. It would help us get that much closer to truly feeling safe not just in our workplaces but in our daily lives, and show us that we can trust men with power to actually have our backs.
To the senators who currently have the power to pass VAWA and to President Biden, who has the ability to put pressure on those senators and eventually sign the bill: Please, pass VAWA. Or your words calling for resignation and for the fair and equitable treatment of women mean no more than the lip service and non-apologies we’re so used to.
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