Krish Vignarajah, one of the women running for governor of Maryland, wants to make sure the culture shift becomes a policy shift, and that sexual harassment is no longer tolerated in government.
Image via Krish Vignarajah for Maryland
When you look back at the history of politicians, and power in general, sexual misconduct is so common it’s often treated as a reference point. I remember arguing with a family member that we couldn’t elect a man who talked about grabbing women by the pussy and then tell our daughters their bodies should be respected. His response? It’s always been that way – look at Bill Clinton. Look at JFK. So it’s not going to change. Maybe it’s the fact that we did elect a pussy-grabbing misogynist, and we still have to look our daughters in the faces. But it’s changing. And political candidates like Krish Vignarajah want to make sure the culture shift becomes a policy shift, and that sexual harassment is no longer tolerated in government.
“We have a moment now, thanks to a lot of fearless women coming out, and thanks to the solidarity of survivors, where we have to create a movement for change to create a culture shift,” said Maryland gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah in an interview with VICE Impact.
"Culture is shifting in a way that, before, women in high offices would view one another as competition, now we view each other as kindred spirits.”
She recalls her years working on the Hill, when everyone knew misogyny and sexual harassment were problems. Even when she served as a top aide to Michelle Obama in the progressive Obama administration, she says there was still a certain dynamic. But she wants to make sure the culture shift becomes a policy shift, and that sexual harassment is no longer tolerated in government.
“Even in the most progressive administrations, there’s still some relic of a male-dominated culture,” she said. “But culture is shifting in a way that, before, women in high offices would view one another as competition, now we view each other as kindred spirits.”
She hopes to leverage that solidarity, as well as the massive movement in the pop culture realm, into action. As one of the few woman running for governor in Maryland (a state that’s never had a female governor, allows rapists to have paternity rights, and ranks 50th out of 50 in childcare subsidies), she’s looking to revolutionize policy.
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Her strategy addresses the issue on three levels: government, business, and education. The first thing she did as she looked to craft this policy was to look to other states or cities that had done it already. That’s when she discovered something shocking.
“We never found a high level office that was focused exclusively on sexual violence,” she said.
“The only way we get there is that the entire power structure is going to look different. We need boardrooms with twice the number of women in leadership.”
They did, however, find a starting point in the sexual assault centers at many universities. So step one in her plan is to create a dedicated office of sexual assault and violence. This office would report directly to the governor, conducting independent audits, rewarding companies and employers who are actively working to combat sexual misconduct and misogyny in the workplace, and to create a hotline and support services for survivors.
Step two: to require the disclosure of sexual misconduct.
“Anyone running for office needs to confirm that they have not committed sexual harassment,” said Vignarajah. “Just as we require financial disclosure or acknowledgement of drug usage, we should also ensure there’s no history of sexual assault. This should matter as we make decisions about who we elect to office.”
It should matter, but does it? We’ll find out in the upcoming Alabama election for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ vacated Senate seat. Judge Roy Moore, who has been accused of sexual misconduct and sexual assault by at least five women, is in a tight race with U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who has successfully prosecuted KKK members and sexual predators over the course of his career. If people are willing to forgive or ignore these kinds of accusations, which Moore denies, it will be more difficult to change the power dynamic.
But Vignarajah lays out a path forward in the third component of her plan. Through education and prevention, she hopes we can raise a new generation that understands what’s unacceptable and what’s not. Conversations about cultural norms that promote misogyny and the concept of consent will be taught from the middle school age, and again at the high school and college levels.
“Boys and men need to recognize that it’s irresponsible to engage in this behavior even if they think of it as joking or mutual,” said Vignarajah. “And women need to be clear on setting parameters.”
“It doesn’t shock me to hear how pervasive this problem is.”
Setting these boundaries and understanding limitations, Vignarajah believes, takes education. But to truly level the playing field, it needs to come both from the grassroots, younger generations up, and from the top down.
“The only way we get there is that the entire power structure is going to look different,” said Vignarajah. “We need boardrooms with twice the number of women in leadership.”
It’s not an easy task, to reimagine longstanding structures, but it’s exactly what Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did the minute he was elected in 2015. He formed a cabinet of 15 women and 15 men, and it was the first time women had equal representation in the prime minister’s cabinet in Canada’s history.
“When you have a panel with one woman on it, that woman has to speak for all women,” said Trudeau at the UN’s Goalkeepers event in September. “Now we have enough women that we have perspectives that are sufficiently diverse and sufficiently wide-ranging.”
Trudeau believes that it is the responsibility of the powerful to make necessary efforts to level the playing field.
“If there is an imbalance, which there is,” said Trudeau, “of men having more strength and more weight to their words in an unfair way, then men have to be part of the solution in using that weight and strength that they were unfairly given to realign the balance.”
As for women in U.S. government, there are currently only four elected female governors in the country, and some of the most progressive states, like California and New York, have never elected a woman to the governor’s office.
“It doesn’t shock me to hear how pervasive this problem is,” said Vignarajah. “The disparities of numbers of women in leadership is partly why we’ve had such a misogynist environment that has led to sexual harassment. We talk about it from Hollywood to the congressional halls: Men are creating laws and policies that govern across the board, and there are no safeguards in place. This is why policy matters.”
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CORRECTION 12/21: An earlier version of this story stated that Krish Vignarajah was the only woman running for office to be the next governor of Maryland. However, there is at least one other female candidate, Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, who is also campaigning for the position in 2018.