By Nancy K. Kaufman
The Harvey Weinstein story broke, finally, because The New York Times and The New Yorker decided to break it. The ground caved in under Harvey Weinstein when for years he had no reason to believe it ever would. But this time it was not a single aggrieved woman sitting next to her attorney, accused of just seeking to extort money for a minor or make-believe insult. This time dogged reporting and the imprimatur of the mainstream press made all the difference as validators of what women suffered because of the power inappropriately exercised by one of Hollywood’s leading moguls.
The wave of accusations has crashed on many shores. No sector is exempt, including my own professional world – that of Jewish communal service – whether in synagogues or Jewish community agencies. [The Jewish Week documented part of this in, “Female Rabbis Speak Out About ‘Pervasive’ Harassment.”] Stories of harassment by donors, rabbis, supervisors and “mentors,” which have been whispered privately for years, suddenly, because of the rise of #MeToo and its Hebrew version, #GamAni, seem not only plausible, but common.
While the women who have now made their stories public may have felt powerless for decades, they have now found their voice – or finally their voices are being heard. For the rest who lack the platform, there is still no easy justice to be had. The ordinary working woman in an office, on an assembly line, cleaning floors, tending the fields or waiting on tables, needs the law on her side. Women of color are particularly vulnerable, with fewer resources with which to fight back.
Fortunately, because of our collective advocacy over the years, we do have legal tools available to us. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bars sex discrimination, and 31 years ago the Supreme Court decreed that sexual harassment in the workplace is sex discrimination. To end such treatment, women may file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or an equivalent state or local agency, but within strict timelines. Similarly, the Fair Housing Act bars sex discrimination and, by extension, sexual harassment toward renters, not to mention the landlord demanding sex to repair a leaky roof or rent an apartment, in violation of criminal law.
The federal workforce and the military have their own bars against sexual harassment. Educational institutions covered by Title IX must also act against harassment of students – just how is now hotly contested.
All of these legal schemes have flaws. EEOC has strict timelines that many women are not emotionally able to meet. The agency has historically been plagued with backlogs and delays. Its commitment to class actions to bring about systemic change has waxed and waned. The Fair Housing Act enforcement effort housed in the Department of Housing and Urban Development has some of these same issues. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has famously withdrawn guidance issued by the Obama administration, now making it easier for those accused of sexual harassment or assault to be cleared of wrongdoing. The history of handling accusations of harassment and assault in the armed forces is a checkered one and the subject of an ongoing congressional investigation.
Outside the realms of administrative agencies, women can file a private lawsuit against a harasser, or file a claim of personal injury damages perpetrated by harassers.
Labor unions offer one avenue of attack for women workers through grievance procedures. In theory, women workers with or without unions can file class action lawsuits, although the Supreme Court just agreed to review a case that would severely weaken the ability of women, among others, to join together to challenge hostile work environments, including tolerance of harassment and assault. And as it stands now, 24.7 million American workers have already been forced to waive their rights to join a class action lawsuit to address sexual harassment and other workplace disputes.
As a result, women feel largely unprotected. We must change that reality. We cannot win this struggle solely in the court of public opinion, or solely relying on an unresponsive legal system. Strengthened policies, law and enforcement must be coupled with the kind of moral and logistical support offered by rape crisis centers to those assaulted off the job. No one should feel they cannot speak of abuse for years or even decades. Even if a woman declines to pursue a case for her own reasons, she can’t be left isolated.
We need employers and institutions of all kinds to be proactive and seek out the truth right in front of them, without waiting for complaints or media reports. A prime example is the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York, which is taking the lead in the training of Jewish organizations and in providing a platform and convening a forum for women to tell their stories. The ongoing public discussion, education and even “outing” of egregious offenders must continue. We need to use every tool at our disposal to educate the public – men about their responsibility to become part of the solution and women about their avenues of recourse. This is all hard and unrelenting work.
Such an effort will necessitate a huge cultural shift – one that acknowledges the women are indeed human with the right to bodily autonomy and the right to the respect implied by that assertion that every person is made in the image of God and is entitled to respect and dignity in their homes and in their workplaces. After all, isn’t that what Jewish values are all about?
Nancy K. Kaufman is CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, a grassroots organization inspired by Jewish values that strives to improve the quality of life for women, children and families and to safeguard individual rights and freedoms.