WASHINGTON — In one part of the Capitol on Thursday, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was meeting with more senators as he faces a contentious confirmation hearing. In another, the House was holding a circus-like hearing with FBI agent Peter Strzok.
In a basement meeting room of the Capitol Visitor Center, there also was a lot of media interest: Jane Fonda, the star of Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie” and the longtime political activist, was pressing lawmakers to expand protections for women domestic workers and farmworkers.
One of her messages: The MeToo and Times Up movement is an opportunity for Hollywood to call attention to women in other industries who face pay inequity and sexual harassment.
“We are here with the domestic workers and the women farmworkers and, as has been said, these women, often women of color, often migrants, immigrants, are very, very vulnerable and they work in a very isolated way and their voices are not heard,” she said at a press conference. “Hollywood realized that we have the privilege of being able to stand alongside these most vulnerable women who don’t have privilege and whose voices are not heard and lend our support to that. We are like repeaters, those towers at the top of mountains that can pick up signals in the valley and spread them out wider.”
Fonda was joined by other activists, including Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Monica Ramirez of the National Farmworker Women’s Alliance and Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center, as they met with lawmakers including Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).
While the meetings on Capitol Hill were described as strategy sessions, the groups are pushing to expand Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to cover more categories of the labor force. Ramirez said that their goals should draw in all political background, as “sexual harassment … is not a partisan issue.”
Fonda said that as she made the rounds on the hill, “it occurred to me that my father, Henry Fonda, who was an actor, is very present with me.” He starred in the classic “The Grapes of Wrath,” which showed the plight of a Depression-era family from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl as they migrated to California.
She noted that the movie showed how the farmworkers were “fighting for dignity and rights and risking their lives doing so. Now we have women farmworkers who are even more vulnerable. So the issue of workers rights has been with me for a long time.”
In the 1970s, Fonda said she worked in the antiwar movement with Karen Nussbaum, co-founder of 9to5, which addressed problems faced by women office workers. “She would tell me these stories of what these women were having to endure, and I said, ‘I got to make a movie about this, and that became ‘9 to 5.'”
It was clear, though, that she sees the Me Too and Times Up movements, triggered by the Harvey Weinstein scandal, as turning points. “I never thought I would live to see a day when women were actually heard,” she said.
“I am very aware of the fact that in the beginning, this happened the way it did because the women who were speaking out were white, and they were famous,” she said. Soon after, though, the National Farmworker Women’s Alliance reached out to celebrities in Hollywood with the message, “We stand with you,” Fonda said.
Fonda said that “made us all realize that this notion that has become so important of intersectionality was now being fleshed out, that this was a new reality for many of us, and that it was going to be forever.”
“I think that there is a beautiful synergy that is happening now with celebrities in Hollywood being able to learn about the realities of working women who are far more vulnerable than we are, and this is going to be ongoing,” she said. “This isn’t something that is going to peter out. This is not a moment, it is a movement.”
Kavanaugh’s nomination has triggered alarms among a number of progressive and civil rights groups that existing worker protections may be in jeopardy, as well as fears that his confirmation would lead to the overturning of Roe vs. Wade.
At the press conference, Fonda at first was reluctant about weighing in on his nomination, worried that it would distract from the event. But pressed on the point, she said that if he is confirmed it would be a “catastrophe, frankly, if this nomination goes through, for everyone, for our children and unfortunately our grandchildren. But women’s rights, worker’s rights, will be shunted to the side, and that is just the beginning.”
Fonda continues to be a focus of some Republicans’ attack ads, and President Trump and others are already targeting Hollywood in general as the out-of-touch liberal elite.
She doesn’t think industry activists should let it keep them from getting involved.
“If we are being attacked it is because we are being effective,” she said. “We are able to amplify the voices of the people that really need to be heard. That’s is really how we have to use our celebrity, is to raise the voices of all workers, and we can’t be cowed by the attacks from the right.
She added, “We have to understand that it is because we are doing our jobs as citizens, and I am very proud of what we are doing. It is important for us to know what we are doing, to listen very carefully so we will know what it is people are talking about, so we can be informed. But I say go — go for it.”
Speaking to a group of reporters afterward, Fonda also spoke out against efforts by the D.C. City Council to overturn a recently passed ballot initiative to raise wages for tipped workers. She called out “the other NRA” — the National Restaurant Association — for working to overturn the initiative, as well as Republicans in Congress who have introduced legislation to block the measure.
She later went to the D.C. City Council to speak out against plans to roll back the wage increases.