Willey's letters raise questions But cordial behavior is not uncommon, say experts on harassment

March 18, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Why did she wait so long to disclose the allegations of unwelcome groping and kissing? Why did she continue to be so friendly with the president if he harassed her? Why did she write him warm, even admiring, letters if she was so distressed by his behavior?

These are the questions that many are asking after the White House released chatty, friendly letters to President Clinton from Kathleen Willey in an effort to cast doubt on her allegation that Clinton made an unwanted sexual advance toward her in November 1993.

The questions are typical of those encountered by women, such as Anita Hill, who bring charges of sexual harassment against their supervisors. And, although Willey has not accused President Clinton of sexual harassment -- only of actions that she said shocked and angered her -- her cordial behavior after the alleged incident is not uncommon for targets of harassment, say many analysts in the field.

"It makes total sense," says Kim Gandy, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women. "If a woman is sexually harassed by her boss, and if she decides not to pursue any legal recourse, it is still in her best interest to stay in her boss' good graces.

"You don't want to make yourself a victim again by doing things that would cause you to be retaliated against. You might even go out of your way to be nice so your boss knows you're not going to report him."

Yesterday, the White House released more documentation of Willey's contacts with the White House after her meeting with Clinton in which, as she recounted in a sworn deposition and on CBS' "60 Minutes" on Sunday night, the president fondled and kissed her against her will.

Clinton has said he vividly recalls the meeting but denies making any sexual advances toward Willey, a White House volunteer who approached him that day in an effort to gain a paying job with the administration.

Along with suggestions by Clinton's lawyer that Willey is motivated by money -- a publisher has confirmed she was seeking a book deal -- the letters are intended to raise doubts about her credibility.

Documents released yesterday show that Willey called the White House in 1995 to say her daughter was getting married -- presumably to get a congratulatory letter for her daughter from the president, which she did.

In Willey's letters to Clinton released Monday, the Virginia Democrat calls herself the president's "number one fan," tells him "You have been on my mind," says she would "like to be considered for an ambassadorship" and signs off with "Fondly, Kathleen."

"I see this routinely," says Debra S. Katz, a lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment suits. "There is still great power and gender imbalance in the workplace, and people can't burn bridges. Frequently, when people are victimized and rebuff or reject an advance, they want to hold out an olive branch. It's a very reasonable act for someone who might fear she cut off an important contact and worry about what that relationship will be like in the future."

'Sending him messages'

Billie Dziech, a University of Cincinnati professor and author of several books on sexual harassment, says she too believes that, rather than undercut Willey's credibility, the letters support her version of events, showing a woman who is perhaps trying to subtly let the president know that she hasn't forgotten what happened and exact "her own kind of quid pro quo."

"I'd make the case that she's sending him messages all the time" through the letters, says Dziech, whose coming book chronicles sexual harassment in higher education. "When she says, 'I've been thinking of you,' the hidden message there is: ' and what you did.'

"Why would she ask for an ambassadorship? She knows she's not going to be the ambassador to the Court of St. James's unless" she thinks she has the leverage to gain such a post.

Else Bolotin, a Chapel Hill, N.C., psychologist who specializes in sexual harassment, is one who believes the letters do weaken Willey's story -- not necessarily about Clinton's actions, but about Willey's angst and outrage over them.

"I don't think she felt traumatized by it," said Bolotin, who has testified in numerous court cases.

Bolotin says she is withholding judgment about Willey's accusations. But, she adds, if they are true, it is possible Willey "used" Clinton's inelegant pass as leverage for her own job desires.

"He was her link to employment," Bolotin says. "I could see where she said to herself, 'He owes me. I have a little more chance to get something because he knows he shouldn't have '' done that.' "

Similar queries posed to Hill

The questions raised by Willey's letters recall similar queries posed to Anita Hill, who retained a cordial relationship with her one-time boss, Clarence Thomas, even though, as she alleged in 1991, he had sexually harassed her.

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