WASHINGTON -- In 1991, as Anita F. Hill's tale of being harassed by Clarence Thomas swept Washington into a fury of cross-gender recriminations, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski deplored the silence of some of her fellow senators.
"What disturbs me as much as the allegations themselves is that the Senate appears not to take the charge of sexual harassment seriously," the Maryland Democrat said then.
With unproven allegations of sexual harassment again sweeping Washington, Mikulski has proved far more circumspect this time. For her and other Democrats, the dilemma is how to respond when the accused is not a conservative Supreme Court nominee but a Democratic president long friendly to women's causes.
"These are disturbing allegations," Mikulski said yesterday in a carefully worded statement, a day after Kathleen Willey's broadside against President Clinton on national television. "Sexual harassment is wrong. I have always fought for women to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace. Until the facts are known, we should not participate in harmful speculation."
Willey's tale may prove to be a turning point in the sex and perjury scandal swirling around the White House. For some, it has put a more credible and sympathetic face on the sexual accusations against Clinton than that of Paula Corbin Jones, who has been supported from the beginning by conservative opponents of the president.
It has shifted the spotlight away from allegations that the president had consensual sex with Monica Lewinsky to the accusation that he forced himself on a woman -- what Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, labeled "a sexual assault."
And it has revived the specter of Thomas, most notably for the women on Capitol Hill, most of them Democrats, who tried to derail his Supreme Court nomination on the basis of sexual harassment charges lodged by Hill.
"Where are these [Democratic] women?" asked Rep. Anne Northup, a Kentucky Republican. "They weren't so cautious with Clarence Thomas. They launched their own investigations, and they demanded public answers."
With Democratic women remaining reticent, Republican women are opening a new front in the gender wars, not against men but against their female political rivals.
"Why are they being silent?" Rep. Sue W. Kelly, a moderate New York Republican, said of Democratic women. "It's an appropriate question."
Some Republican women yesterday accused their Democratic colleagues of hypocrisy, and mentioned the Thomas confirmation hearings as evidence of a Democratic double standard.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, said some of the doubts about Willey raised by her critics -- why did she remain friendly to Clinton if she had been so offended by the incident? -- were identical to doubts about Hill in 1991. Hill, for example, had followed Thomas to a new job and remained in contact with him long after his alleged harassment.
Back then, some Democratic women complained that such questions reflected ignorance of sexual harassment and its effect on victims. Now, these Democrats seem less offended when such questions are asked of Willey.
In 1991, Democrats tried to explain that Hill had been in a position of vulnerability, fearful of losing her livelihood and under the power of a male superior whom she depended on for recommendations and advancement. But the same, Northup said, could be said of Willey, whose financial vulnerability was starkly evident in her family's economic collapse and her husband's suicide.
"Just because someone makes a pass at you, just because you're feeling uncomfortable, you do not leave your job the next day," Northup said. "That was the whole point of the Anita Hill hearings."
"I've been puzzled, quite frankly, by the different attitudes," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican. "I think there is a different standard."
The nervousness of Democratic women was palpable yesterday as they ducked questions and issued bland statements.
"Ms. Willey has made serious charges, and they deserve to be thoroughly investigated," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who was outspoken in the Thomas matter and when sexual harassment charges surfaced against former Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon. "It should be noted that the president has unequivocally denied these charges."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, another California Democrat, insisted that the Thomas matter and the Clinton matter were not comparable.
"One involves the president of the United States, involves his word," said Feinstein, who rode a wave of female anger over the Thomas hearings to the Senate in the 1992 "year of the woman." "The word of the president is a very important thing."
Republicans are reluctant to let their colleagues off so easily.