As One of the Eleven New Women in the Texas House, We Must Take Sexual Misconduct Seriously

The House has an opportunity to lead the way in creating an environment of accountability and respect in the Capitol and all workplaces across Texas.

Illustration/Sunny Sone

The House has an opportunity to lead the way in creating an environment of accountability and respect in the Capitol and all workplaces across Texas.

Illustration/Sunny Sone

On Tuesday, the Texas House will reconvene for our first session since the “Me Too” movement brought the pervasive and persistent sexual misconduct that so many women face into mainstream public discourse.

One of the House’s first duties will be affirming the rules that we as a body will abide by. I hope that among those rules we will include an expanded policy on appropriate office behavior and establish a formal process for reporting and investigating sexual misconduct.

State Representative Erin Zwiener  courtesy/Erin Zwiener

As the youngest woman member of the 86th Texas Legislature, I acutely remember the vulnerability so many women face entering the workforce. (Sexual misconduct, of course, can impact anyone, but young women are particularly vulnerable.) I, like most women, have my own stories: ducking to avoid an attempted kiss from a much older boss when I was only 16; losing a prospective mentor when it became clear that his offer of mentorship came with strings attached.

Experiences like mine are not a rarity in workplaces, and the Texas Capitol is no exception. I’ve read the reporting on sexual misconduct in the Capitol with disappointment and dismay. The pink dome is the people’s house, and the Legislature has an obligation to protect the people who walk through its doors.

Thankfully, many of my colleagues agree, and the House convened a bipartisan working group (led by state Representative Donna Howard, D-Austin) to address the issue. We stand poised to enact their recommendations this week.

The working group’s recommendations include a clearer definition of sexual misconduct, a defined process for filing and investigating complaints, provisions for independent investigations when necessary and an accountability process for both staff and members.

As it stands now, without those protections, many victims believe they only have two options: Suck it up and be silent, or make their allegations public in the press or on social media. Going public is painful for everyone involved, and the court of public opinion often obscures the fact-finding process instead of clarifying it. The formal process proposed by the working group protects everyone, both those making allegations and those alleged to have behaved inappropriately.

I am certain that we will continue to build on this policy in the future, but this is a key first step. The members of the House have the opportunity to begin the legislative session by showing the people of Texas that we take sexual misconduct seriously.

Addressing sexual misconduct in a meaningful way is one of the challenges of our time, facing every corner of professional, academic and social life. I am proud to be joining a legislative body that is taking this challenge head-on. Many of my colleagues are determined to create a Capitol culture where everyone is treated with respect.

As I begin my work in the Capitol, I think of the number of women who left politics, or were reluctant to enter it, because dealing with harassment and assault just wasn’t worth it. I think of the continued underrepresentation of women in the political sphere: in the Legislature itself, on our staffs and campaigns, among advocates and in the press.

This year, 11 new women are entering the Texas House, and we don’t want the generation of young folks entering the Capitol this session to experience the harassment others have dealt with. The members of the Texas House have an opportunity to lead the way in creating an environment of accountability and respect in the Capitol and all workplaces across Texas.

I’m honored and grateful to join a body that is ready to take action. Let’s change the rules, shift the norms and protect all who enter the pink dome.

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Erin Zwiener is the state representative for House District 45. She is an author, educator, activist, a fifth-generation Texan and a three-time Jeopardy! champion. She lives in Driftwood, Texas, with her husband and daughter.


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