During the two months she was in the Missouri Capitol in 2015, Alissa Hembree felt completely alone.
She was interning for state Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, and says she was enduring sexual harassment on a daily basis.
Constant comments about her looks. A barrage of inappropriate text messages. Explicit requests for sex.
She knew what she was going through was wrong. But she had no idea where to turn for help.
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“I felt really isolated,” Hembree said in a recent interview with The Star. “I was afraid no one would believe me if I spoke up. Or that they’d say, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have gone to lobbying events.’ Or ‘You shouldn’t have done this or done that.’ ”
Hembree eventually found the courage to speak out. And while LeVota adamantly denied the allegations, the subsequent investigation led to his resignation from the Senate.
LeVota’s resignation followed the resignation of House Speaker John Diehl after it was revealed he’d exchanged sexually charged texts with a 19-year-old legislative intern. In the weeks between resignations, dozens of women told The Star that a culture of sexual harassment has been pervasive in the Missouri Capitol for decades.
Two years after a summer marked by scandal, most agree there has been progress and legislative leaders have worked hard to improve the culture of the Capitol. But unraveling a culture that was decades in the making takes longer than two years, and women interviewed by The Star say problems persist.
“Improved, yes. Altogether great? Absolutely not,” said state Rep. Gina Mitten, a St. Louis Democrat. “Women are still not treated as equals in this building. And I worry that memories will fade and the strides we’ve made won’t stand the test of time.”
The most recent development involves a coalition of groups that launched MoInternNetwork.org, a website aimed at helping Missouri interns like Hembree identify and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. While it is open to interns all over the state, it was inspired by the statehouse scandals of 2015.
Two groups — Partners in Prevention and the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence — created the site, and it was funded by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and the Women’s Foundation of Greater Kansas City.
“We want these young women to know they are not alone,” said Wendy Doyle, the foundation’s president and CEO. “This really is a resource for an intern to be able to identify whether what they are experiencing is right or inappropriate.”
Harassment was a cultural norm in the Missouri Capitol, said Kelly McCambridge, an employment law attorney from Kansas City.
“And it was disconcerting, because a casual observer could have walked through the Capitol and seen that,” she said.
The new website could be a powerful tool, McCambridge said, if it empowers more women to speak out about harassment.
“The biggest impetus for people not to report is they don’t understand it’s happening to other people,” she said. “They don’t understand how common it is. When everyone maintains that silence, things get swept under the rug.”
House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, led efforts to implement new intern and sexual harassment policies in the wake of the Diehl and LeVota resignations. Those include mandatory sexual harassment training for legislators and staff, a ban on romantic fraternization and the creation of an intern ombudsman.
Richardson says he’s proud of the progress during his two years as speaker, but “while we’ve come a long way from where we were, there’s always more work to be done.”
McCaskill said she decided to support the new website because it broke her heart to hear that young women were going through exactly what she’d experienced in the Missouri Capitol decades earlier.
“I remember when I was an intern, way back in 1974,” she said, “It was stressful and upsetting, and I didn’t really know who to talk to or what to do.”
Rep. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat, said her personal experience in the Capitol has improved over the last two years.
“I don’t feel like people are projecting those feelings towards me, as if I’m an inferior or that I should be the object of being hit on. I felt that a lot less recently,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s because people have gotten to know me more personally or if it signifies a bigger change in the culture.”
But she still hears plenty of stories about inappropriate behavior at the statehouse. And even though she’s not experiencing overt harassment, that doesn’t mean she’s been immune from more subtle forms of sexism.
“If I’m standing in a corner and have a sort of blank look on my face, someone will inevitably come up and ask me to smile,” she said. “And it’s always an older gentleman. That is a shared experience among a lot of female elected officials.”
Richardson’s commitment and sincerity to improving the working environment for women in the Capitol is not in question, Arthur said.
But at the same time, she said, Republican leaders undercut their credibility on the issue when they approved legislation earlier this year making it harder to sue a former employer for discrimination or harassment.
The bill, which was approved over vehement opposition by Democrats and signed by Gov. Eric Greitens, requires workers who claim discrimination or harassment in wrongful termination lawsuits to prove that bias was the explicit reason they were fired.
The previous standard was much lower, requiring them to prove only that bias contributed to their dismissal.
“There’s an overall cognitive dissonance,” Arthur said. “While we’re trying to improve our Capitol culture, many, many, many women will continue to experience discrimination and have lost their ability to avail themselves of the justice system.”
Richardson said the changes to discrimination law won’t limit someone’s ability to seek justice if they were harassed.
“We want them to pursue harassment claims,” he said. “But what we also want is a fair litigation system across the board.”
Legislators appear to have taken the issue seriously in the wake of the 2015 scandals, McCambridge said. But the credit for any improvements, she said, should go to the women who spoke out and forced lawmakers to wake up and see the problem in their midst.
“What a risk those young women took,” she said. “Lawmakers are elected to do what’s right. That should be expected of them. These women went so above and beyond their job.”
“They came forward, and I was very proud of them,” she said. “I never did. I tried to fluff it off with a sense of humor. I did the avoidance technique.”
As for Hembree, she recently graduated from the University of Central Missouri. She’s kept her distance from the Capitol since leaving halfway through her internship in 2015. But she speaks to the university’s Capitol interns each year, sharing her experience and offering her perspective.
She hesitates to accept any credit for the changes that have taken place since she left the Capitol. But she’s glad she spoke up so that “the next 21-year-old with good intentions and enthusiasm won’t be treated the same way.”
“After the media started picking up on it, I started getting lots of support,” she said. “I heard from people who said they went through it and it had crushed their confidence. You just need to know you’re not alone. That sense of solidarity means a lot. That in itself will help. These things happen, and it’s OK to be upset about them.”