On November 8, 2016, Seattle voters passed a landmark piece of legislation to protect housekeepers and other hotel workers from sexual harassment and assault. That same day, a known sexual predator was elected president of the United States. On January 20th, 2017, Donald Trump took office. The next day, millions of women took to the streets and demanded to be seen and heard.
With progress comes backlash. But with backlash comes resistance.
Through the accusations against Harvey Weinstein and countless others, we are once again joining together and speaking out. Women have been harassed and assaulted with calculating cruelty and maddening ubiquity. We feel tremendous anger and disbelief, but also substantiation and hope.
The outpouring of stories and the rage that accompanies them have been characterized as the product of a broken system. Ignored by our employers, our communities, even the courts, women have been left with no other recourse than to publicly name and shame our harassers—men who were also our bosses, our coworkers, our colleagues, our mentors.
Recently, Washington’s State Legislature has been in the spotlight. Together with eight other women, I spoke out about the sexual harassment I experienced in the Washington State Legislature. More women came forward to help paint a picture of a work environment characterized by a lack of accountability or oversight that bred inappropriate behavior towards female lobbyists, aides, staff, and legislators.
I was privileged to be in a position to speak publicly about my experience and to have a reporter think my story newsworthy, and I was bolstered by the public attention and outcry that followed. We know that such public outcry is not enough, and that it most readily amplifies the voices of women who themselves have some form of power and platform. But it can feel like all we have.
When the satisfaction from facing our fears and sharing our stories begins to fade, we are left with a hunger for real accountability—for a system that acknowledges our experiences and is committed to preventing them from happening again. And we are faced with the challenge of supporting progress for all women, not just those whose stories most closely mirror our own.
In this moment, I thought of Seattle’s hotel housekeepers who were speaking out and demanding change many months before my Olympia colleagues and I went public with our stories. In many ways, our work lives couldn’t be more different. But there are also similarities. We both experienced firsthand how some men’s behavior can change when they’re away from home and feeling unsupervised.
There is a path forward—one hospitality workers in Seattle are already forging. It is possible for our laws to center vulnerable people and prioritize preventing their abuse over protecting the powerful. A year ago today, the Seattle Employees Health and Safety Ordinance became law. The ordinance addresses workplace harassment and assault head-on by putting would-be harassers on notice, equipping workers with the tools they need to protect each other, and creating concrete consequences for harassers. It is a law that says Seattle believes women when they come forward.
The backlash to Seattle’s prescient progress on workplace protections for women has come from the hotel industry, which has fought to preserve a status quo in which 53 percent of Seattle housekeepers have experienced harassment or assault and hotel guest rooms serve as the backdrop for crimes committed against women from all walks of life. The Seattle Hotel Association, the Washington Hospitality Association, and the American Hotel and Lodging Association (which, in recently publicized internal documents described Seattle’s law as “a solution in search of a problem”), have sued the City to overturn the ordinance, which was approved by 77 percent of Seattle voters.
In lower court deliberations, attorneys for the industry turned the arguments in support of the ordinance—that women who experience harassment and assault suffer real harm; that they face significant barriers to coming forward; and that employers have a responsibility to protect their employees—on their head. They argued instead that hotel guests accused of harassment are the injured party; that those accused face stigma and loss; and that hotels have a responsibility to defend their guests.
In a particularly surreal moment from the Superior Court hearing, lawyer Harry Korrell, who represented the associations in court, responded to an assertion from Judge John Erlick that a guest who was banned from one hotel for harassment could always simply stay at another by comparing it to being told to sit at the back of the bus. In his argument, Rosa Parks and a businessman accused of masturbating in front of a housekeeper suffer a shared oppression.
Ultimately, Judge Erlick did not buy into the hotel industry’s portrayal of the persecuted perpetrator, and he dismissed the industry’s challenges to the harassment protections on the basis of standing. But the industry has since appealed the ruling to the Washington Supreme Court, and further court challenges are still likely.
We are making hard-fought progress in combatting workplace sexual harassment and assault, and hotel housekeepers in Seattle are leading the way. But the backlash is real. The hotel industry’s insidious arguments that laws and courts should defend already powerful men, not hotel housekeepers, won’t stay in the courtroom. If the attacks on Seattle’s ordinance are allowed to gain traction and discourage the pursuit of similar protections in other cities and industries, it may be many more years before the outrage that surfaced through #MeToo can be translated into the systemic change we desperately need. Now is the time for us to stand together and refuse to let the conversation or the focus shift until workplace protections for women are an indisputable and enforceable policy.
Jessyn Farrell is a former state representative who ran for mayor of Seattle.