By men, for men

Anna Quindlen

October 10, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

LISTEN to us.

You will notice there is no please in that sentence. It is difficult to feel polite, watching the white men of the U.S. Senate and realizing that their first response when confronted with a serious allegation of sexual harassment against a man nominated to the high court was to rush to judgment.

It is difficult to feel polite, knowing they are more concerned about how this looks for them, for their party, their procedures and their political prospects than in discovering what happened.

The gender divide has opened and swallowed politeness like a great hungry whale. Why? Why? Why? they asked.

Why did Anita F. Hill, now a tenured law professor at the University of Oklahoma, not bring charges against Clarence Thomas when, she contends, he sexually harassed her a decade ago?

Why did she stay on the job although, she says, he insisted on discussing with her the details of pornographic movies? Why was she hesitant about confiding in the Judiciary Committee?

The women I know have had no difficulty imagining possible answers.

Perhaps she imagined no one would believe her, he powerful, she not.

Perhaps, if she was indeed humiliated in the seamy way she describes by her boss, regaled with recountings of bestiality and rape when she was fresh out of law school and new to the world of work, she decided it was best buried in her memory.

Perhaps she thought the world would never believe that the man charged with enforcing sexual harassment laws as chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would do such a thing.

From time to time I am told of the oppression of the white male, of how the movements to free minorities from prejudice have resulted in bias against the majority. Watching Thomas' confirmation hearings, I wondered how any sane person could give this credence.

The absence on the panel of anyone who could become pregnant accidentally or discover that her salary was $5,000 a year less than that of her male counterpart meant there was a hole in the consciousness of the committee that empathy, however welcome, could not entirely fill.

The need for more women in elective office was vivid every time the cameras panned that line of knotted ties.

"They just don't get it," we said, as we've said so many times before, about slurs, about condescension, about rape cases.

Thomas has floated on the unassailable raft of his background, impoverished boyhood to Yale Law to public position, an upward claw that was impossible to diminish.

Hill had the same climb, with the added weight of gender. It seems obvious that she has been caught between the damage she feared these charges might do to her hard-won stature and the morality of watching in silence the elevation of a man she believes is capable of harassing women.

One of the most difficult things about bringing sexual harassment charges is that it is usually one woman against the corporate power structure, against the boss who says she's imagining things and a bulwark of male authority that surrounds him. Davida against the Goliaths.

Anita Hill, poised and dignified, spoke up Monday and found herself aligned against the most powerful men in America, including the president. Who of us would have had the guts to lift her slingshot?

Listen to us. To trivialize the allegations of this woman by moving ahead without painstaking investigation would have sent a message: that no matter what we accomplish, we are still seen as oversensitive schoolgirls or duplicitous scorned women.

Obviously it would have been better if Hill had stepped forward earlier, content to be reviled and suspect in the public eye.

But I understand what she feared: that what has happened would happen. That the focus would be not on what Clarence Thomas did to Anita Hill, but on what Anita Hill did to Clarence Thomas, and who leaked it to the press, and why it's emerging now, and all the peripheral matters that make the central concern, the right to work unmolested, seem diminished and unimportant.

The Senate rush to judgment on Hill's story suggested that this is a government by men for men. And that there is little hope that any of them will really listen to any of us.


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