Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao appeared to suggest Tuesday that women who experience sexual harassment have “got to let it go” ― and women’s rights activists weren’t happy.
Speaking at Politico’s Women Rule Summit in Washington, D.C., an event to celebrate female leadership, Chao revealed that she has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. However, she said, the “environment was very different” when it happened to her.
This is an important lesson. You know, you will go through difficulties in your life. And I hope you will all triumph. And when you triumph, you need to help others along the way. But you also must have magnanimity of spirit. Things change. Times change. And it’s not worth my while to go back and revisit those negative moments.
I will fight for other women. And I will stand up for other women. But you know, of your own — you’ve got to let it go. Because otherwise, it’s too corrosive, it’s too negative and it does you a double injury because it holds you back.
Chao’s words brought backlash, with critics saying her remarks were part of the problem.
A Department of Transportation spokesperson said that Chao’s comments weren’t intended as advice for other women.
“The Secretary’s reflection on her own personal experience was authentic and inspiring,” the spokesperson told HuffPost. “While she did not offer advice to others on how they should cope, she did clearly state her commitment to standing up for women.”
Still, Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, told HuffPost that Chao’s comments gave the impression of reinforcing deep-seated sexism.
“She is displaying systemic misogyny when she makes the victims responsible for their own future,” Choimorrow told HuffPost. “Comments like ‘let it go’ [and] ‘this will hold you back’ that are made to victims of sexual harassment and even rape sends a clear message it is solely the responsibility of women to deal with the aftermath of sexual harassment.”
In her remarks Tuesday, Chao didn’t offer any hints as to the identity of the person who harassed her, saying that the individual is “still around.”
“It’s not worth my while to go back and revisit those negative moments,” she said.
Dozens of women have come forward in recent months with stories of their own sexual assault experiences, in some cases inspiring real change. After several women in the entertainment industry came forward to describe their traumatic experiences, for example, Los Angeles police launched a special task force to investigate Hollywood sex crimes.
The act of coming forward is difficult to begin with, Choimorrow said. Often, female victims are wary of describing their experiences with sexual harassment and assault because they fear they’ll be blamed for what happened, or accused of making up a story. A Department of Justice report from 2016 showed that Baltimore police officers often blamed victims or even suggested they were lying if they didn’t immediately report an assault.
Speaking out takes courage, and Chao should use her platform to lift up other women, Choimorrow said.
“As a woman of color in a position of power and privilege, who herself has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, Elaine Chao has an opportunity to inspire and encourage assault victims to come out, speak up, and fight to transform a culture that allows for the extreme discrimination of and violence against women,” Choimorrow said.