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.
No Elaine Chao, we will not "let it go". Letting it go allows it to continue. That's why the abusers have gotten away with it for so long. Letting it go is accepting it. No more #metoo
A Department of Transportation spokesperson said that Chao’s comments weren’t intended as advice for other women.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao
Elaine Chao testifies before a Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on her nomination to be transportation secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Elaine Chao (R) sits next to her father James S.C. Chao as she arrives to testifies before a Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on her nomination to be transportation secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao testifies before a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 7, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
U.S. ?Vice President Mike Pence? (L), sitting next to Transportation Secretaryï¿½Elaine Chao, speaks with Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney during the first meeting of the U.S. National Space Council at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, U.S. October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) addresses supporters while accompanied by his wife, former United States Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, at his midterm election night rally in Louisville, Kentucky, November 4, 2014. Television news networks are projecting that McConnell will win the election. REUTERS/John Sommers II (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (L) and his wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, greet Britain's Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, in McConnell's offices at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, March 19, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (L) shakes hands, after he ceremonially swore-in, with Vice President Joseph Biden (R) in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington January 6, 2015. Holding the Bible is McConnell's wife, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
New Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is sworn in by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (R) as her father, James S.C. Chao, holds a bible during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 31, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) walks as his wife Elaine Chao waves to the crowd as they walk to their polling precinct to vote at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, November 4, 2014. McConnell is running against Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. REUTERS/John Sommers II (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
U.S. Senate Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his wife Elaine Chao arrive at Bellarmine University to cast their ballots during Kentucky's primary elections in Louisville, Kentucky, May 20, 2014. McConnell is running against Republican challenger Matt Bevin. REUTERS/John Sommers II (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao poses for a souvenir picture with her nephews Ben (L) and Tyler in the Brady Press briefing room of the White House in Washington, January 12, 2009 just after President George W. Bush had given his final news conference on the same stage. Chao is the only member of Bush's cabinet to have lasted his entire eight-year administration. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES)
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) (L) and his wife Elaine Chao arrive for a State Dinner honoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House in Washington, June 7, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 18: Secretary Elaine Chao, U.S. Department of Transportation, speaks at The 2017 Concordia Annual Summit at Grand Hyatt New York on September 18, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 09: US President Donald Trump (R) participates in the 'Roads, Rails, and Regulatory Relief roundtable meeting', beside Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao (L) at the Department of Transportation on June 9, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)
Elaine Chao, U.S. transportation secretary, speaks during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, June 7, 2017. Chao defended President Donald Trump's plan to remove air-traffic operations from the government Wednesday, saying the system could no longer handle growth and still maintain safety. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 18: Elaine Chao, Secretary of US Department of Transportation, and Gen. (Ret.) David Petraeus, Chairman, KKR Global Institute, attend The 2017 Concordia Annual Summit at Grand Hyatt New York on September 18, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
Elaine Chao, U.S. secretary of transportation, listens during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on Monday, May 1, 2017. The conference is a unique setting that convenes individuals with the capital, power and influence to move the world forward meet face-to-face with those whose expertise and creativity are reinventing industry, philanthropy and media. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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“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.