Stolen Kisses

Anna Quindlen

December 08, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

THIS time around, we were the ones who didn't get it.

Sen. Bob Packwood had always been someone feminists could count on, to support abortion rights and family leave, to vote against confirming Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court.

And then one morning we discovered that, like a Capitol Hill Dorian Gray, the senator was suspected of keeping an ugly portrait in the attic of his character. Ten women told The Washington Post that he had sexually harassed them over what had been a long and, until now, illustrious career.

Kissing, fondling, sexual suggestions -- there was nothing subtle about the behavior they alleged.

But there was something emblematic about it.

For while it is important that the Senate investigate these charges fully, it's also important not to compartmentalize this as the Packwood problem.

It's not even useful to think of it only as a power problem, the arrogance of the man at the top who believes he can do what he pleases.

The problem of sexual harassment is emblematic of what hasn't changed during the equal opportunity revolution of the last 20 years. Doors opened; opportunities evolved. Laws, institutions, corporations moved forward. But many minds did not.

At the time of Anita Hill's testimony, a waitress told me of complaining to the manager of the coffee shop in which she worked about his smutty comments and intimate pats. He replied, "You're a skirt." Then he told her that if she didn't like it, there were plenty of other skirts out there who would take the job -- and the abuse.

She needed the money and she got the message -- there is one standard for people, and there is another standard for skirts. This is the way the world works for many women: the boyfriend pops you in the eye, the boss feels you up.

It all seems very distant from Sandra Day O'Connor, Sally Ride, the admission of women to medical school, or the rest of what we characterize as progress for women.

Several weeks ago a federal judge in New Jersey named Maryanne Trump Barry gave a speech about sexual harassment in which she complained about women overreacting to small remarks and incidents.

"I like a little chivalry, I like to receive flowers, I like taking care of a son and a husband," the judge said, "and in my judgment, those who recoil from these things don't know what they're missing."

I'm disappointed that Judge Barry perpetuated the nutty anti-feminist myth that the world is full of overbearing women who go berserk if you send them roses.

And I would hope a woman in such a visible position would use it to say publicly over and over again that the number of women who take excessive umbrage at an off-color joke is very small compared with those who have been humiliated by something considerably more.

The International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, recently released a report on sexual harassment in 23 countries, including the United States. The report said between 15 and 30 percent of working women questioned in surveys the group studied said they'd been subjected to frequent harassment, including "unwelcome requests for sexual intercourse."

The report concludes: "The likelihood of being harassed is most closely associated with the perceived vulnerability and financial dependency of the victim." In other words, female federal judges are rarely sexually harassed. Judge Barry recommended the deft riposte in the face of boorish behavior. But the deft riposte is the purview of the professional woman with the showy resume. The bitter shrug is more like it for the waitress who puts up with the filthy comments about her physique so she can afford to buy shoes for the kids.

Just as we fooled ourselves that the end of discriminatory laws would soon lead to racial harmony, so we thought that increased access to education, advancement and male-only arenas would

erase the attitudes that have led some men to treat women like children, fools and punching bags.

The allegations against Packwood the alleged chasm between public acts and private attitudes illustrate the changes that still need to come.

After equal opportunity and role models and life choices comes the hard part, the hearts and minds of the men we live and work with. Fairness. Civility. The end of the skirt standard.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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