Lessons for women whistle-blowers

July 10, 2002|By Christopher Hanson

TEN YEARS ago, Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin did something unprecedented in military history: She aired the U.S. military's dirty linen on national TV, discussing her assault by male colleagues at the now-notorious Tailhook aviators' convention.

Lieutenant Coughlin's appearance on ABC News shook the Navy, jump-started a stalled criminal investigation and put a human face on the huge problem of sexual misconduct in the military. It also effectively ended her career.

Paula Coughlin was the first in a decade-long line of women in the military and in quasi-military agencies such as the FBI who have risked everything by going public to right wrongs within their ranks. Often lacking institutional support or a powerful peer group, a woman whistle-blower in a male-dominated field can find her veracity, job performance and character under heavy assault.

Fortunately for us, a dozen women since Tailhook have been willing to take the considerable risks. Their experiences point the way for future Paula Coughlins to combine courage with greater savvy, maximizing the public benefit while minimizing personal risk. My research points toward these basic rules for would-be women whistle-blowers:

Go to the press last -- or at least indirectly.

Charges of disloyalty for talking to the news media are invariably the first attacks whistle-blowers must endure. With some creativity, it is possible to avoid this. The FBI's Coleen Rowley shook up our intelligence establishment without ever holding a news conference. She blew the whistle on the FBI's pre-Sept. 11 bungling by sharing with Congress a letter she had written to FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Unsurprisingly, the letter made its way from Capitol Hill to the press. Agent Rowley has emerged as a hero and so far proved immune to personal and professional attack.

By contrast, consider retired Sgt. Maj. Brenda Hoster. In 1997, she charged on the front page of The New York Times that Army Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney, the Army's top enlisted man and her former boss, had sexually harassed and physically menaced her. She acted when Sergeant McKinney was appointed to an Army panel to combat sexual harassment.

Had Sergeant Hoster filed a timely complaint with the Army without going directly to The Times, the brass might well have pressured Sergeant McKinney to quit the panel and retire. Sergeant Hoster could have thus avoided becoming her former boss' chief accuser at a sensational court martial. Though Sergeant McKinney was forced into retirement by Sergeant Hoster's whistle-blowing, the "he said, she said" nature of the charges won his acquittal on all but one of 19 counts.

Sergeant McKinney was acquitted on 18 counts of sexual misconduct and convicted on one count of falsifying a document.

As things turned out, Sergeant Hoster lost nearly as much as Sergeant McKinney: She ended her military career prematurely and endured humiliating public attack by McKinney partisans.

Timing is crucial.

For years, Air Force Lt. Col. Martha McSally had been working to overturn an order requiring that U.S. military women wear the traditional Muslim covering (the abaya) off base in Saudi Arabia.

When USA Today interviewed her in April 2001, no policy changes ensued. But Colonel McSally went back to the press in January -- just as the United States was helping to liberate Afghan women from their burqas. The Pentagon, apparently not immune to the irony, rescinded its order.

Fight attempts to stereotype you. "Vulnerable woman" is such a powerful cultural stereotype that even journalists sympathetic to your cause may attempt to turn you into a "damsel in distress." Don't let them.

Lesley Stahl came close in a 60 Minutes interview with Colonel McSally, but the officer effectively turned the tables. Ms. Stahl displayed Colonel McSally's abaya and asked her to put it on. The tough-as-nails fighter pilot suddenly sounded quavery -- a "vulnerable woman" -- but only for a moment. Colonel McSally refused to wear the garment, reasserting her control over the interview -- and deep-sixing the stereotype.

Be prepared to lose it all. We know what happened to Lieutenant Coughlin and Sergeant Hoster. Several of Sergeant McKinney's other accusers left the service after his court martial, their reputations tarnished at the trial. Colonel McSally said that, for the sake of other women in uniform, she was willing to risk her own military career over the abaya policy.

The next Coleen Rowley needs to draw on the experiences of these gutsy women. Martha McSally and Agent Rowley seem to have avoided many of the pitfalls of going public, but it may be too early to tell. It's not too early, however, to thank all of these women whistle-blowers for a difficult decade of public service.

Christopher Hanson, a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, wrote his doctoral dissertation on women whistle-blowers in the military.

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