Women divided on emerging scandal Harassment, privacy, integrity questioins complicate issue

January 23, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Brenda J. Buote contributed to this article.

Six years ago, it was Anita Hill at the center of the frenzy that is the sex-tinged Washington scandal: the round-the-clock media reports, the leaks, the rumors, the dissection of her sexual harassment complaints against former boss Clarence Thomas, who was headed to a seat on the Supreme Court.

Today, it's Monica Lewinsky feeling the hot breath of the media ** and the nation in Paula Jones' sexual harassment case against the president of the United States.

While Hill has a more personal interest in the case then most, many women are equally engaged in this latest intersection of sex and politics: from women with no connection to public life, to former Colorado Rep. Patricia Schroeder, to the so-called post-feminists such as Christina Hoff Sommers.

"She is under siege," Hill said somewhat wistfully as she considered Lewinsky's stint under the nation's microscope.

"She's 24, but even if she were 34 or 44 or 54, she is not equipped to handle that. I can empathize with her on that level.

"She probably can't find anyplace to hide. It's intense pressure. It's not going to go away."

Hill, the law professor whose charges turned Thomas' Senate confirmation hearing into a national seminar on sexual harassment, may be the name most closely allied to the issue.

"If Paula Jones is telling the truth, then we put this man in office who we thought believed what we believed, and then we find out he's behaved quite differently," says Hill, who voted for President Clinton.

"If it's not true what she is saying, then the issue's been co-opted, and that doesn't make me feel good either.

"Those of us who care about the issue are going to be left to move it forward despite the harm that has been done."

In the years since she helped bring the issue of sexual harassment into the national consciousness, Hill and other women have seen a once fairly united feminist voice on the issue splinter into finer and finer variations -- there are now traditional feminists, post-feminists, gender feminists and the Gen X babe feminists.

Those who rallied around Anita Hill are not the same ones embracing Paula Jones.

The Lewinsky case has upended usual loyalties: Feminists are not necessarily denouncing the accused man. Those who split with feminists because of what they consider the movement's "victimization" of women are calling Lewinsky a victim.

"I want to know where the women's groups are. Why aren't they holding candlelight vigils and pressuring the president to talk to the nation on this?" said Laura Ingraham, a former clerk for Clarence Thomas and now a CBS commentator.

"How much more can you ignore? This is all so unseemly. This is so far beyond partisan politics."

"The silence is deafening," agreed Rita Simon, an American University sociologist.

(Literally. A call to Gloria Steinem's office netted this: The feminist icon has laryngitis.)

But Schroeder, a Democrat who was one of the women who marched to the Capitol in support of Anita Hill in 1991, rejects the charge that feminists have been hypocritical in their lack of support for Jones.

"There are valid cases of sexual harassment and the use of power over subordinates. This is not it," says Schroeder, now president of the Association of American Publishers.

"Even with this intern, I don't know. Wasn't she an adult? Wasn't she of age? She's given a sworn statement that she didn't have the affair. I think that should have some credibility."

Wendy Kaminer, a public policy fellow at Radcliffe who has written about post-feminists such as Simon's Women's Freedom Network, said, "Being a feminist doesn't mean you believe everything every woman says. There is so much visceral hatred against Clinton -- I'm not even a Clinton supporter -- and that's what's driving this.

"As far as I'm concerned, who he sleeps with is Hillary's problem," Kaminer said. "This latest thing is akin to going through a red light and lying to the police about it. This is not a matter of national concern. There is no allegation of sexual harassment [by Lewinsky]. There is an allegation of a consensual affair, two people in a workplace."

But for Simon, whose group proclaims that women are not victims and men are not the enemy, the complicating factor is Lewinsky's age.

"Somehow, a 21-year-old woman in the White House, and now we're in the Oval Office. It makes her much more of a victim, much more vulnerable. I clearly think he took advantage of his office," she said.

"She's only a child," said Christina Hoff Sommers, whose provocative book "Who Stole Feminism" charges that feminists have overstated such issues as domestic violence and eating disorders.

"Living in Washington, I know the intern system. He's the president of the United States. People frown on this at universities -- professors can seem very glamorous to some students, and people think it's bad form to take advantage of that.

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