Women see overdue shift in male-dominated Senate PACKWOOD RESIGNATION

September 08, 1995|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Scott Higham contributed to this article.

For years after women were galvanized by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee's treatment of Anita Hill and her sexual harassment charges, the rallying cry was: "They just don't get it."

Yesterday, when Sen. Bob Packwood resigned rather than face possible expulsion for charges that included sexual harassment, feminists were ready to modify that slogan.

"I think that they finally got it," said Maripat Blankenheim, spokeswoman for 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women. "This is a strong message to working women everywhere and to the men who supervise them: This type of action that Senator Packwood both engaged in, and saw nothing wrong with, is not going to be tolerated."

Rep. Patricia Schroeder, the Colorado Democrat and longtime critic of what she calls the Senate "male club," said the Packwood resignation signals a major shift in how lawmakers will deal with the issue of sexual harassment.

"It's no secret these guys have protected each other over and over again," she said of the mostly male Senate. "The Ethics Committee ruling was a signal that those days are over.

"Let this be a message to all public officials. You treat people who work with you with respect. They are not playthings, they are people. It all boils down to respect and dignity."

Nearly all of the women interviewed referred to the Senate's treatment of Anita Hill in 1991, when she charged Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas with sexual harassment -- and how he was confirmed nonetheless.

"This time, as opposed to the Anita Hill case, we see the right outcome," said Kathleen Cahill, a Baltimore civil rights lawyer who specializes in employment discrimination and sexual harassment cases. "It's just too bad we did not get to see the Congress hold legitimate, potent hearings -- again as opposed to the Anita Hill case -- into this important issue."

"This has to be a heads-up for men in power. You can't treat women as the spoils of power," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women.

Ms. Ireland and others, however, noted that Mr. Packwood represented a contradiction for them: 17 women charged him with sexual harassment, yet he also has a record of voting in favor of women's issues. "We had worked on this since late 1992," Ms. Ireland said. "I found myself strangely saddened watching the resignation. He historically has been a good vote for women."

Still, Ms. Ireland said she was not concerned about losing a secure vote on women's issues. "The Senate reflects its constituents. Whoever replaces [Mr. Packwood] will be good on our issues," she said of Oregon's progressive tendencies.

Bernice Smith White, chairman of the Baltimore City Commission for Women, said she hopes that the Packwood case will further encourage women to come forward if they are victimized by sexual harassment. "It goes back to the hearings of Clarence Thomas and how Professor Anita Hill really had to put her career and life on the line," she said. "There's been a definite change."

"The single most important thing is that people are being made to understand the severity of his actions," said Ann Lewis, the liberal activist recently named the deputy manager of the Clinton re-election campaign. "Society as a whole has changed on this, because of women. We are entitled to be treated with respect. We will not be mistreated."

The Women's Legal Defense Fund lauded the Senate for catching up with the rest of the country on the issue of sexual harassment. By its vote to expel Mr. Packwood, Ethics Committe members "demonstrated what Americans have long known: Sexual misconduct is immoral, intolerable and illegal, and Members of Congress must not abuse their power or betray the public trust," Judith L. Lichtman, the president of the fund, said in a prepared statement.

She also singled out Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, both Democrats, for their leadership in the Packwood investigation.

Still, the women added, the Packwood case shows how much more work needs to be done on the issue of sexual harassment. It took 17 women, 33 months of investigation and a unanimous, 6-0 vote by a Senate committee before he gave in.

"I am left wondering," Ms. Cahill said, "why does it take more than a dozen women victims to force accountability of United States senators? It's just astonishing."

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