It’s been a confusing and frustrating month for women in NJ politics. The #MeToo article in the Star Ledger about sexual harassment revealed a shocking pattern of misogynistic conduct up and down NJ political structures.
But instead of responding with swift action to dismantle those structures of power that propagate women discrimination in electoral campaigns and government offices across NJ, male politicians retreated to silence or made token gestures of solidarity. Even the original ad-hoc committee announced to investigate the toxic environment lacked diversity of voices and instead chose to focus on tokenism rather than on inclusive substance.
In one of his timeless letters from the Birmingham jail, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reflected that one of the biggest challenges for the struggle for civil rights for African Americans at the time came not from “the White Citizen Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to ‘justice.”
In that same reflective spirit, I would argue today that the biggest challenge for all women, and especially women of color, to receive redress to their daily #MeToo experiences comes not from the silence or indifference of male politicians, but from moderate leaders who are more devoted to order in the system than to justice in the workplace.
For young women of color, the current #MeToo narrative as elevated so far by media pundits, has promoted a narrative centered mostly on the experiences of white and affluent women who function at the highest levels of politics where NDAs are required as a condition of employment. If women at the top are silenced by NDAs they claim, that injustice translates into fear at the bottom for all women.
But such logic fails to acknowledge that changing the rules of the game for women at the top only, while doing little to transform the rules that create a toxic environment for the many at the bottom, doesn’t challenge the system of exclusion in which sexual harassment thrives. NDAs are important, but they are not the single most important tool in the toolbox to force cultural change in the workplace. The majority of women harassed and assaulted over the years did not have NDAs and still did not feel safe speaking up. And when they did, they were not heard by the current political power structure.
Let me remind you that despite great progress, not all women at the top are allies of women working their way up or to those seen as not having enough influence. Instead some find it easier to become gatekeepers to those in power. After all, access to power is a monetized commodity in politics. The harassment is a cultural problem going on for way too long in NJ. It is not about one campaign.
In a 1989 article, Columbia and UCLA Law Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote about the need to develop an “intersectional perspective on workplace sexual harassment and gender-based violence in any workplace.” According to Crenshaw, “the intersection of race and gender affect whose claims of harassment are believed…,” hence impacting how white women and women of color experience toxic culture differently even when they work in the same environment.
A toxic environment in politics is not a new phenomenon. Women advocates across all spectrums of age and ethnicities have complained about such toxic environments before—yet no one paid attention.
This toxic environment impacts women of color even more because we have very few women in elected office who can validate our grievances and provide a media platform for redress. I have written before about the concrete ceiling that holds Latina women back; it is known as the “boys-only” network of party leaders who demand compliance and loyalty.
Such toxic environments exist at all levels of the structures of political power; from the legislative and executive offices, to state and county political organizations’ staff and their campaign consultants who extend resources to the same network of preferred consultants and contractors.
It exists in state, county and local government agencies that grant jobs and contracts only to those loyal to county bosses and to the Godfathers who protect them. As described in the same #MeToo story, those men have the power to hire, promote and fire women in legislative offices and campaign jobs up and down the political apparatus.
In order to fix this problem, women do not need political posturing or tokenism from elected leaders. We need an unbiased conversation that includes all of our voices, those seen as insiders as well as those who are pushed out for speaking out. As a young woman advocate recently stated, “Why would any woman be opposed to more diversity of women leading on this conversation?” We need more women “Chiefs of Staff” and “Commissioners” over deputy roles across all branches of politics.
All elected officials have a responsibility to stand for more than just their own personal experience. They have a duty to hear the voices of those who do not look like them or speak like them.
Simply put, NJ’s current #MeToo narrative needs a jolt of wokeness, a reckoning with what Tarana Burke calls a version of women empowerment that is intersectional across race, ethnicity, age, class and job positions. Only when all women experiences are elevated on equal footing, we will find a new way forward.
We also need male allies to speak-up and demand perpetrators, male and female, are held accountable. After all, not all men behave badly, but it is the lack of accountability for those who do, that encourages complicit behavior that maintains a toxic culture.
Together we can change our workplace culture in NJ politics.
But if this #MeToo moment in NJ leaves the voices and experiences of marginalized women behind, it will indeed fail to produce truly lasting change.
Dr. Patricia Campos Medina is a progressive labor political leader, educator and researcher on workers rights and social justice leadership. Opinions are her own. Follow her on Twitter @pcamposmedina