Women activists, politicians strangely silent on Willey's charges

March 20, 1998|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- This has not been a good week for American women. It has been bad enough, in fact, that you have to wonder when they are going to use their political muscle.

A military jury has handed down a verdict in the case of Sgt. Maj. Gene C. McKinney that seems to send a message that women in the service are taking considerable risk if they complain about sexual harassment.

And the White House has come down so heavily on Kathleen Willey that she must wonder why she ever even mentioned her accusation that President Clinton harassed her in the White House.

Because we didn't follow the testimony in the McKinney trial, we have no way of knowing whether the military jury was justified in acquitting him of 18 counts of harassment and limiting his punishment on another count to a reprimand and a reduction of one grade in rank.

Boys in charge

There is, however, no question about the picture projected by the McKinney case -- a picture of the boys in charge protecting one of their own. The verdict on Mr. McKinney contrasts sharply with, among other things, the tough treatment given Kelly Flinn, the highly rated woman pilot who was kicked out of the Air Force because of a private although adulterous relationship.

There is, moreover, an added threat in the McKinney case in his post-verdict announcement that he would file a $1.5 million libel suit against one of his accusers, now retired Sgt. Maj. Brenda L. Hoster. The message for women there is that if you don't make a sexual harassment charge stick, you can end up as a defendant yourself.

That is essentially what is happening to Ms. Willey now in the case of her complaint against Mr. Clinton. The fact that she was forcibly drawn into the case by the lawyers for Paula Jones seems to have been lost in the White House campaign to make it appear she had some ulterior motive and therefore might have been lying.

If all this sounds familiar, it is because it is similar in so many respects to the case of Anita Hill's charges of sexual misconduct by Clarence Thomas aired during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings seven years ago. Like Ms. Hill, Ms. Willey did not come forward voluntarily. But, also like Ms. Hill, Ms. Willey has become the issue, not the man she accused.

The most striking difference in the two cases, of course, is that the plight of Anita Hill enlisted the organizations of activists for women's rights who were quick to condemn the conservative Republican Thomas. By contrast, those same activists have largely ignored Paula Jones, who apparently does not qualify as a sympathetic figure by their standards, and are only now hesitantly stepping into the Willey case.

NOW's position

Thus, Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women and Kate Michelman of National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League both cited the "credibility" and seriousness of the story Ms. Willey told on television. And Rep. Nita Lowey became the first Democrat in Congress to say that Ms. Willey's allegations against Mr. Clinton are "very serious and very troubling for those of us who have fought so hard against sexual harassment."

But other Democrats in Congress, of both genders, are still dancing around the issue, as are many of the liberal activists who were so vocal in the Anita Hill episode. Indeed, one of the most outspoken then, Ann Lewis, is now a White House flack suddenly ubiquitous on network television doing her part to undermine Ms. Willey's credibility.

The first problem for these women activists is obviously their commitment to Mr. Clinton as a president who has been consistently supportive of their position on such front-burner issues as abortion rights. That kind of shared history did not deter them from turning on then-Sen. Bob Packwood, of course, but he was just a Republican senator, not a president.

The second problem is that women at large -- not just political activists -- are so pro-Clinton. In 1996 he defeated Bob Dole 54 to 38 percent among women while losing narrowly to the Republican nominee among men. And one new poll on the Willey matter shows women clearly more inclined than men to believe Mr. Clinton's denial. Thus, women leaders have reason to wonder if anyone will follow them if they take a hard line against the president.

The one thing that is clear, however, is that women have valid reasons to be concerned about sexual harassment -- and about what happens to those who try to do something about it.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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