No truce yet in the gender war

Sandy Grady

October 31, 1991|By Sandy Grady

Washington -- HE WAS leaving a forum in Pittsburgh Monday when a woman rushed up to Sen. Arlen Specter and said, "Arlen, I'm still with you, but you were too tough on Anita Hill."

One more American woman firing a shot in the gender war that has no signs of a truce.

The faces of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas faded off TV screens two weeks ago. I can't recall a Washington event that left such rumbling aftershocks. It was the political version of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.

For many women -- and politicians ensnared in the Hill-Thomas teledrama -- the seismic blasts opened an emotional crevasse.

At any gathering of males and females, it's still topic A. At a dinner of journalists, a woman said bitterly, "I have yet to meet one man -- not one! -- who gets it." (Men studied their shoelaces.) The next day I heard a woman lawyer who once worked with Thomas snap, "Clarence would never get out of line sexually. She was lying."

You notice that the Hill-Thomas contretemps is a Rorschach ink blot test that everyone, especially women, sees through the prism of experience.

Yes, it was a cultural and gender cataclysm. But will the Hill-Thomas firestorm leave a political imprint? Will feminists wreak 1992 vengeance upon senators they think roughed up Hill?

The one certainty is that two Republican heavy hitters in the Senate Judiciary lineup, Specter and Alan Simpson, are amazed and baffled by the fury. They deal with the anger differently.

Simpson, a pop-off artist with a gift for trouble, was embroiled in a publicized on-and-off-TV flap with National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg. ("She laid the 'F' word on me three times," he raged.) Then he leaped on-screen in the Hill-Thomas hearings by insisting his pockets were stuffed with damning evidence.

"They all say," snarled a leering Simpson, "look out for this woman!"

Two weeks of protest, including "cool-it-Al" advice from his mother, wife and daughters, had Simpson singing "mea culpa" in an aw-shucks baritone.

"I've been riding high, a bit too cocky, too arrogant, and, yeah, too smart by half," a remorseful Simpson told a Cheyenne, Wyo., audience.

Outside the White House Monday, Simpson said if Bush could overcome his "wimp" stigma, he'd outlast the anti-woman image. "I don't blame the press. I don't blame feminists. It's me."

Pennsylvania's Specter has more at stake than Simpson. His seat, always precarious, is on the line in '92. If he survives a right-wing primary challenge from anti-abortion zealot Steven Freind, Specter faces Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Singel next year.

Women's anger at Specter's hard-boiled questioning of Anita Hill stunned him. Ten thousand pro and con calls melted down his office phones. Female staffers shouted, "God should strike you dead." Famed feminist Betty Friedan flared, "George Bush is Public Enemy No. 1, and Arlen Specter is Enemy No. 2."

In an interview Monday, Specter still sounded bewildered and defensive about resentment from women's groups.

"I didn't ask for the job. I was assigned to question Hill by Sen. (Strom) Thurmond. I tried to do it in a low-keyed, professional way," said Specter. "I defy anybody to show me on the tape where I wasn't polite to her. I thought I was boring and detailed."

But Specter's memorable, hard-edged moment came when he accused Hill of perjury -- a harsh bombshell on a technical point that had nothing to do with sexual harassment. He looked like an ex-D.A. bullying a witness.

"I'm supposed to find out who's credible," said Specter. "That moment turned on a floodlight. I didn't find her credible. Look, the sexual harassment issue hit a raw nerve. The response was (( tremendous. I had no idea so many women would identify with Anita Hill."

But he's convinced that TV exposure -- and Specter is notorious as a politician who'd run 100 yards in snowshoes to appear on television -- helps him politically. "People I meet at home are proud a Pennsylvania senator was prominent on CNN," he said.

Outraged women? "What more can I do?" said Specter. "I'm with them 999 times out of 1,000. I'm pro-choice. I fought against the (abortion) gag rule . . . . I've fought beside Jack Danforth to pass the civil rights bill."

Politically, I suspect Specter emerged unscathed. He made points with conservatives. (They may forgive him for voting against Robert Bork.) I doubt feminists' fury will be a major 1992 factor. Polls show women were split 50-50 on Hill's credibility.

Sure, the Hill-Thomas drama exploded a gender war being fought at dinner tables, beauty parlors and barber shops.

But women remain fragmented and disorganized at the ballot box.

As a political force, it is women, not men, who still don't get it.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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