A Woman's Civil Right to Walk on Street or Campus

ELLEN GOODMAN

August 02, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- It is a midsummer night and the two women are strolling back from dinner along the main street of their city-suburb. They are carrying with them the leftovers of an amiable dinner table conversation about their world and their families, the mix of subjects that animate their lives and friendship.

In the midst of this after-dinner glow, a car fully loaded with young men pulls up beside them. Swiftly and with great hilarity, the four men spew out a sequence of lewd suggestions and vague threats. Then, like a dump truck that has unloaded toxic waste on illegal turf, they take off.

The two women are left standing in these fumes, breathing deeply. Finally, one says to the other, ''Where are Thelma and Louise when you need them?''

It has been that kind of a summer. The news has been full of sexual offenses. And counter-offensives.

In just the past week, three women have come forward to tell stories about being attacked by William Kennedy Smith. Individually these tales are as hard to prove as the first scene painted by the Palm Beach woman. But collectively, they are hard to dismiss.

At the same time, in New York, three students from St. John's University have been acquitted of sexually assaulting a young woman. Jurors found ''inconsistencies'' in the story of a woman forced to drink alcohol and then violated by this trio and three others. The jury had doubts about the men's guilt. But more than a few people have doubts about the nature of their ''innocence.''

And while these sorry tales occupied the headlines, a country music song is pulled from the airwaves. The teasing lyrics ''When I say no, I mean maybe or maybe I mean yes'' are out of sync with the seriousness of the matter.

There has been rapt attention focused on that oxymoron ''date rape.'' But in many ways, the heated attention on sexual assault has merely raised the summer dew point of a climate that women find stifling. Will this go down in the records as the year that the greenhouse effect of violence is finally recognized?

The two women walking home victims of the most minor of street assaults, barely worth acknowledging on the scale of urban dangers are old enough to remember the 1970s. When young women talked about the restraints on their freedom then, the prime topics were money, marriage, the law. When they pushed for access, the pressure points were jobs, schools.

But today it seems the most deeply felt constriction on daily life may be fear. Where women go, what we do, and how comfortable we feel doing it, are often limited more by a sense of danger than by legal discrimination.

Now, young women who have won equal access to the colleges of their choice are more resentful at the idea that they have to be wary at the fraternity door. Women who live comfortably in coed dorms are more outraged at those men who can't be trusted. Women who work on the same terms with men are less accepting of inequity on the streets.

''Who in their right mind would have gone to a house where eight guys lived?'' said a male St. John's student to a reporter. Who? Another St. John's student.

Who in their right mind would have ''thought he (Willie Smith) was going to be a gentleman and let me sleep in his bed . . . '' as one woman alleges. Who? A friend. A date.

To the very degree that women lead more equal lives, they are more angry when the new terms are violated. To the degree that other freedoms are won, there is a much stronger urge now to take off this chador.

As mothers, the two women walking home from dinner regularly caution their daughters. As mothers, the two women are resentful of a world that makes them deliver such a message. As women, they too are conscious of barriers to their own freedom in the world. The barriers marked danger.

The danger sign is as real as any that ever barred women from any other turf. The right to walk down a street, across a campus, into a fraternity house, resonates as strongly among women especially young women as any civil right. Indeed, it may define, in the most literal terms, the progress of the women's ''movement.''

This summer the spotlight is on sexual assault, but there is pressure on all the barriers of fear. Here is where all movement stalls, or goes forward. The going forward is rough.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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