Handling of case angers women Many demand Senate delay vote on confirmation

October 08, 1991|By Maureen Dowd | Maureen Dowd,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The bitter he-said, she-said case of Anita F. Hill and Clarence Thomas has offered a rare look into the mechanics of power and decision-making in Washington, a city where men have always made the rules and the Senate remains an overwhelmingly male club.

Even with the facts of the Oklahoma University law school professor's charges of sexual harassment against Judge Thomas still in dispute, the story of how members of the all-male Judiciary Committee handled the accusations has touched off an angry explosion among women in legal and political circles.

"Once again women and men are watching something unfold through absolutely different sets of eyes and different sets of experiences," said Ann F. Lewis, a former adviser to Democrats in Washington who is now a political consultant in Boston. She said the case had sent "an electric current of anger through women" and a greater conviction that women must be represented in high places in greater numbers.

Yesterday, many female lawmakers and lawyers demanded, in meetings on Capitol Hill and in petitions, that the Senate delay its vote, arguing that the matter had not been given proper weight by "the old boys' network," that the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, did not fully discuss the charges with all the panel members, and that the committee never questioned Judge Thomas formally and never brought Professor Hill to Washington to hear her side of the story.

"They are men, they can't possibly know what it's like to receive verbal harassment, harassment that is fleeting to the man and lasting and demeaning to the woman," said Representative Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

"These allegations may not be true. But women in America have to speak up for themselves and say we want to remove all doubt that the person who goes to the Supreme Court has unquestioned respect for women.

"What's the rush? We need a little more time to follow up on allegations so that we can send a signal to women in America that we take sexual harassment seriously."

Representative Pelosi, a Baltimore native, and other female lawmakers also issued formal statements and petitions to the Senate leaders yesterday urging that the Thomas nomination be re-examined in light of Professor Hill's charges.

"She is not an October surprise," Representative Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., said of Professor Hill. "The times they are a-changin' and the boys here don't get it on this issue. They don't really understand what sexual harassment is, and it's not important to them. They tried simply to dispense with her in short order.

"Why weren't there any questions about his views on pornography by the senators who had read that FBI report?"

Women contended that the public reaction yesterday of some of the members of the Judiciary Committee showed not only that the men did not give as much weight to the matter as their female counterparts, but also that they did not understand the law.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who is a member of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters that he had questioned Judge Thomas before the start of the panel's hearings about Professor Hill's charges and been satisfied.

"The lateness of the allegation, the absence of any touching or intimidation and the fact that she moved with him from one agency to another, I felt I had done my duty and was satisfied with his responses," he told the Associated Press.

But asked about his comment later, in an interview, Mr. Specter, a former prosecutor, said that he did understand that touching was not required in a sexual harassment suit, that verbal harassment was also against the law.

"I don't want to emphasize the touching thing," he said.

Many women were angered by Senator Specter's comment defending the nominee, and by comments by Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., who defended Judge Thomas yesterday and raised questions about Professor Hill's motivation.

Some women lawmakers noted dryly that Mr. DeConcini had seemed more concerned with the fact that someone might have broken the rules of the Senate by leaking Professor Hill's affidavit than he did about fully airing the allegations.

Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., the member of the Judiciary Committee who took to the Senate floor last night to argue that the nomination be delayed, agreed that the matter had "touched a nerve" with women on Capitol Hill, and with some men.

"I think there is, in a body that is 98 males to two women, a lack of sensitivity toward women's concerns and black and Hispanic concerns," he said.

Katherine T. Bartlett, a law school professor at Duke University who sent a letter to the Senate leadership last night calling on them to delay the vote, said she got 70 signatures from women law professors in just hours.

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