Not one state legislature in this country has a spotless record on how male legislators treat female staffers—but over the past year, it has become clear that Tennessee has a particularly long way to go in this area.
In January 2016, The Tennessean began investigating claims that Representative Jeremy Durham of Franklin, TN was sexually harassing multiple women who worked at Legislative Plaza. The next several months led to a dramatic series of hearings and investigations, until finally, in September, Durham made history by becoming the first Tennessee state representative to be expelled from the legislature for sexual misconduct.
During this controversy, “Jeremy’s Law” was passed, which places the attorney’s fees of a failed lawsuit against the state and/or a state employee on the plaintiff (TN Code 29-20-113). Representative Bo Mitchell of Nashville stated in July 2016 that he would be introducing legislation to repeal this law, since it discourages victims of sexual assault from coming forward.
Mitchell’s bill—which will be voted on by the Civil Justice Committee on Wednesday, March 29th—gained momentum in February 2017 when newly-elected Representative Mark Lovell of Eads, TN resigned after being accused of molesting a female staffer.
House Democrats demanded that the legislature investigate Lovell’s behavior, despite the fact that he had resigned, since this was the second time in one year that a legislator has left the general assembly due to sexual misconduct claims. But Speaker Beth Harwell doesn’t see the point, since they are both no longer members of the legislature.
While the house may be seemingly “safe” for the moment, earlier this month, disturbing news came to light about Senator Joey Hensley of Hohenwald. He is not only a senator, but a family physician, currently in the midst of divorcing his fourth wife.
It is worrisome that Tennessee’s Republican general assembly members seem to have a pattern of abusing their position of power to sexually harass and assault women who work for them.
After the Jeremy Durham controversy, Speaker Harwell implemented mandatory sexual harassment training. But the training only consists of watching a 15 minute video (which is unavailable to the media, much less the public) and which Mark Lovell and possibly other legislators skipped.
While Speaker Harwell claims that no further investigations are needed, and that Lovell’s resignation is an indication that the house’s sexual harassment policy works, it is clear that more needs to be done to change the Tennessee Legislature’s status as a “boy’s club.”
Out of the 132 seats in the Tennessee General Assembly, only 22 are held by women. And as for the sexual harassment policy, many female government employees are still unsure of the reporting system, and are afraid to file reports because of legislation such as Jeremy’s Law.
The current policy should be updated to make the reporting process less complicated. It should be possible for past incidents to be investigated, whether or not the person accused is still a member of the general assembly. And finally, there should mandatory in-person trainings.
Taking these steps to protect women is especially important as we move further forward into Trump’s America. While many young boys and men are looking at our current president with the understanding that they should not follow in his footsteps, his example of treating women as your property because you are in a position of power is dangerous. After the past year, Tennessee needs to make sure it is taking preventative steps at all levels, especially in our state legislature.
Edited by Lydia McMullen-Laird