Hollywood inspires Capitol Hill's whisper network to come out of the closet

Congresswomen and female staffers are sharing stories of harassment and assault.

ByABC News
October 28, 2017, 7:05 AM

— -- The whisper network of stories of sexual harassment and assault has now found its voice on Capitol Hill.

Congresswomen and female staffers in the nation's capital are calling out a culture of tolerance of bad behavior, inspired by those who began this tough conversation in Hollywood.

Many actresses like Rose McGowan are no longer silent. At the Women's Convention in Detroit on Friday, she made her first public appearance since Oct. 12, when she accused Harvey Weinstein of rape 20 years ago. ("Any allegations of nonconsensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein," a representative for the movie executive said.)

PHOTO: Harvey Weinstein speaks at a film festival in Zurich, Switzerland, Sept. 22, 2016.
Harvey Weinstein speaks at a film festival in Zurich, Switzerland, Sept. 22, 2016.

McGowan addressed the audience, calling them "fabulous, strong, powerful me toos."

"I have been harassed. I've been maligned, and you know what? I'm just like you," McGowan told convention attendees. "What happened to me behind the scenes happens to all of us in this society, and that cannot stand, and it will not stand. I came to be a voice for all of us who have been told that we are nothing. For all of us who have been looked down on ... No more. Name it, shame it, and call it out. Join me."

Now the social-media-driven #MeToo movement she helped spark has been ignited on Capitol Hill.

"I know what it's like years later to remember that rush of humiliation and anger," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said in a video that she tweeted Friday. "Many of us in Congress know what it's like because Congress has been a breeding ground for a hostile work environment for far too long."

Taking a cue from the #MeToo campaign, Speier is launching #MeTooCongress, urging lawmakers and staffers to speak out by sharing their stories.

"I was working as a congressional staffer," Speier recalls in the video. "The chief of staff held my face, kissed me and stuck his tongue in my mouth."

She is not alone.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said that as a young state legislator, she sought advice from an older male colleague on getting legislation passed. His advice?

"He looked at me and paused, and he said, 'Well, did you bring your knee pads?'" she said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "I do think he was joking, but it was shocking that he would make that joke to a colleague."

A recent survey found that 40 percent of female congressional staffers cited sexual harassment as a problem on Capitol Hill. One in six female aides said they experienced sexual harassment in their office. But unlike at many workplaces, on the Hill there is no mandatory sexual harassment training.

To file a complaint, victims must go through counseling, mediation and a cooling-off period before filing a legal claim — all while working in the same environment where the alleged harassment took place.

As more women speak out, some men facing allegations of workplace harassment, like political journalist and former ABC News political director Mark Halperin are apologizing.

PHOTO: Mark Halperin in Beverly Hills, Calif.,  in this Aug. 11, 2016 file photo.
Mark Halperin in Beverly Hills, Calif., in this Aug. 11, 2016 file photo.

In a statement Friday, Halperin apologized "to the women [he] mistreated" admitting his behavior "caused fear and anxiety for women who were only seeking to do their jobs."

Speier is calling for a complete overhaul of the complaint process to make it easier for victims to come forward. Next week she is expected to introduce legislation to make sexual harassment training mandatory for all members of Congress and their staffers every year.

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