Just after 6:30 p.m., the four ceiling fans turned on in The Hideout Inn’s cozy venue space. It was getting toasty with a packed audience — each holding a beer and no distracting cell phones — who came to the local bar for the #MeToo edition of The Girl Talk event on Nov. 28. The event centered around the recent sexual abuse cases in the news, the #MeToo campaign that stormed social media and what powerful Illinois women are doing to stop the sexual abuse in local government and open the conversation in our society.
The Girl Talk is a monthly show and podcast every fourth Tuesday of the month at The Hideout (1354 W. Wabansia Ave.) hosted by Jen Sabella, managing editor of The Takeout and former DNAinfo reporter, and public education activist and Chicago Public School teacher Erika Wozniak Francis. The show focuses on influential Chicago women and gender nonconforming individuals fighting for social justice.
Since many sexual assault and harassment allegations have come to light, the discussion around how they can be stopped and what can be done locally and nationally is ramping up. The Girl Talk’s event featured Megan Blomquist, director of education and training with Rape Victim Advocates and State Representative Litesa E. Wallace, who serves Rockford by representing the 67th District in the Illinois House of Representatives and is a candidate for Lieutenant Governor.
With a bright smile that lit up like her red blouse, Wallace started the night’s conversation on an important note — how gender, race and class play a significant part in speaking up against sexual harassment. She has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and studied that relationship in her dissertation. She noted that minority women’s voices are missing from the conversation, which she details in her Nov. 15 Teen Vogue article “Rep. Litesa Wallace Details Sexual Harassment of Black Women in Government.” As a black women raised in Chicago’s South Side passionate about women’s rights, income inequality and education, Wallace said there is a stigma around black women; stereotypes dictate they should stay silent if they are part of a lower class or race and a victim of abuse.
“Women of color are often further silenced because we are not able to be as blunt,” Wallace told the attentive crowd. “There are very few minimum wage workers who are going to be able to say, ‘My boss or my supervisor is harassing me every day,’ because that is quite literally the difference between them having a job and piecing together whatever they can to feed their families and not having a job.”
But apart from race and class, the women acknowledged the positive trend in confident women opening up to share harassment stories and band together over social media. Finally, women are ready to call attention to this long-seeded issue and hold their perpetrators accountable. Blomquist, who has worked with RVA since 2009 and is certified in both sexual violence and domestic violence work in Illinois, said the issue is not only personal but political.
Although the #MeToo hashtag was started over a decade ago by a black feminist, its effect now has been a wild whirlwind for Blomquist and has much bigger reaches.
“I was personally impacted to see people share their stories online — it’s not easy to share that trauma with the world,” Blomquist said, adding that it was almost certain all the women present had experienced some type of verbal or sexual harassment before.
“We want to bring guys into this conversation because it’s not just a women’s issue, and we need all hands on deck to end it in the long run,” she said.
In Springfield, Wallace said the air was tenser after the social media campaign took off and more sexual assault cases were revealed. In the spring of 2016, Wallace introduced a bill about another aspect of sexual assault that she said is not often discussed: officer-involved sexual assault. It went nowhere fast, she said, but then the news about the Oklahoma officer assaulting 13 women came to light in national media. She remembers a victim from that case asking, “What kind of police do you call on the police?” That struck Wallace hard. After pushing the bill, called the Law Enforcement Sexual Assault Investigation Act, it was passed in July 2017; the act says another agency or precinct of the officer must investigate the sexual offense.
This shows action to receive justice for sexual assault crimes and train law enforcement, government and the culture at large about what needs to change. The panel stressed that it starts with the young generation, but from an even more basic level, cultural narratives around harassment in the form of jokes, witty banter or overly flirtatious language.
“If we allow for those things to be acceptable, even if they are jokes, it makes it easier for people that are committing physical crimes to get away with what they are doing,” explained Blomquist.
It’s good that these discussions are occurring publicly and not privately, she said, but now the question becomes where to draw the line and how to end the fight. Wallace said ending the patriarchy and electing more female politicians is a progressive step, as well as lifting up voices not typically thought of regarding sexual harassment.
“[We can start] a culture shift if we keep talking,” Wallace said, ending on a positive note.