Female senators focus on issue Sex harassment, Packwood at stake

November 03, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Most of the senators were lead-faced and formal. They talked in somber tones about lawyerly issues that might make you forget this debate started with 28 women accusing a powerful politician of kissing and groping them and tugging at their clothes.

But the women of '92 didn't forget.

Some of these female senators -- elected during the so-called "year of the woman" -- were determined to focus the Senate, if even for a moment, on the underlying claims of sexual harassment against Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore.

"These women want justice," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., speaking on the Senate floor yesterday. "There are over 20 of these women, some of whom have carried this burden around for a heck of a long time and . . . I think it's important that we support these women by supporting the ethics committee."

It was a sentiment shared by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who told fellow senators Monday that America was watching their actions for a sign of how women who complain of harassment will be treated.

"A vote against this resolution," she insisted, "sends a clear message also to every woman in this country: If you are harassed, keep quiet, say nothing, the cards are stacked against you ever winning. Procedures, rules and other issues will obscure the allegations being investigated."

Both senators were elected a year ago -- along with Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill. -- in the most triumphant sweep for female candidates the nation has ever seen.

In November 1992, four women were elected to the Senate, joining two already there. One of the newcomers became the first black woman to serve. And in the House, 47 women were elected, half of them first-time victors.

Many of these candidates rode into office on a tide of anger vented by women across the country in the aftermath of Anita Hill's testimony of sexual harassment by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

At that hearing, the Senate's all-male Judiciary Committee was criticized as judgmental and presumptuous, and lacking of a clear understanding of sexual harassment.

There were eerie echoes of that painful confrontation yesterday when Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Ms. Hill's chief inquisitor, and Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., Justice Thomas' principal defender, rose repeatedly to argue for a compromise on behalf of Mr. Packwood.

"It seems that Senators Specter and Danforth are assuming their old roles," said Kim Gandy, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women. "Do they think no one will notice they are the same two who went after Anita Hill?"

This time -- even though debate centered on procedural questions, rather than Mr. Packwood's guilt or innocence -- the presence of more women in the Senate made it an entirely different debate, said Harriett Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus.

"Definitely, they are helping to keep some focus on the ongoing issue of sexual harassment," Ms. Woods said. "I am afraid that left to themselves, the men would talk endlessly about institutional and procedural issues."

"You take Feinstein, Boxer and Murray, three strong women senators . . . and the Senate cannot forget the women . . . whose allegations started this whole process."

Of course, having more women in the Senate also makes it clear that all women do not vote the same, nor do they hold the same views.

Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., who is the senior woman in the Senate, took issue yesterday with Ms. Murray and declared that sexual harassment was not at issue.

"That is not what this debate at this particular moment is about," Ms. Kassebaum said in a rebuttal on the Senate floor.

"It is really about whether the subpoena, as such, is one that is going beyond an initial scope of inquiry of the Senate Ethics Committee and whether the questions that are being asked are ones that are important to be asked."

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