Feminists in tough spot over Clinton sex charges

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- In a head-on collision of politics and principle, feminists who vigorously rallied behind Anita Hill three years ago find themselves in an awkward position as a woman aligned with right-wing groups accuses President Clinton of sexual harassment.

With fierce political crosswinds in the air, many women's advocates have been noticeably quiet and reluctant to demonstrate any support for Paula Jones, the former Arkansas state employee who claims Mr. Clinton sexually harassed her three years ago.


"It's difficult for a lot of feminists because many of us supported President Clinton," said one feminist lawyer, Gloria Allred.

Ms. Jones, who says then-Governor Clinton invited her to a Little Rock hotel room and asked her to perform a sexual act, plans to file a civil suit today in federal court alleging that Mr. Clinton violated her civil rights and caused her emotional distress, according to her lawyer.


"This is a very sticky case," said Harriett Woods, executive director of the National Women's Political Caucus.

As evidence of that awkwardness, Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski -- who angrily denounced her male colleagues for failing to recognize the seriousness of the sexual harassment charges Ms. Hill leveled against Judge Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, in 1991 -- issued a perfunctory, neutral statement yesterday on the Jones charges.

"Sexual harassment cannot be tolerated. Charges of sexual harassment are serious and should be taken seriously," the statement says. "An allegation has been made against the President of the United States by Paula Jones. Ms. Jones intends to file a suit. If filed, her suit will be investigated and decided by the judicial system. . . . And that's the appropriate way for it to be handled."

Groups such as the National Abortion Rights Action League,which aggressively took on the issue of sexual harassment when it was aimed at Judge Thomas, now maintain that they have "no comment" on the Jones accusations, saying they are not within their purview.

Schroeder's silence

Rep. Pat Schroeder of Colorado, another loud voice during the Hill-Thomas hearings, sent a short letter to constituents and others who asked why there had been such silence over the Clinton accusations. "It may have something to do with the fact that the charges are not considered very credible," Ms. Schroeder's letter says. "Even the Republicans, who indulge in partisan harlequinades at the slightest whiff of presidential misconduct, havesteered clear."

Conservatives, for their part, are gleefully pointing out the disparity between the women's groups' loud roar of support for Ms. Hill, whose charges were aimed at a conservative Republican, and today's silence.

"You can cry sexual harassment, but it seems to depend a lot on who you're crying out against," says Beverly LaHaye, president of Concerned Women for America. "Why are the feminists not clamoring to support Paula Jones the way they were with Anita Hill?"


In response, feminists note that the conservatives who are now beating the sexual harassment drum on behalf of Ms. Jones were on the other side of the issue during the Thomas-Hill hearings. "I would like to know, 'Where were those people on Anita Hill?' " says Judith Lichtman,president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund.

"If there's a double standard being applied, it's being applied on both sides," says Susan Estrich, a University of Southern California law professor who ran Michael S. Dukakis' 1988 Democratic presidential campaign.

"For me, the fact that you're a feminist, the fact that you take sexual harassment seriously, doesn't mean every time a woman makes a charge she must be believed. I just don't believe Paula Jones."

Women's advocates are also saying that there are distinctions between this and the Anita Hill case that have nothing to do with any loyalty they may have to a Democratic president.

"Remember, we're the group he called 'bean counters,' " says Ms.Woods, referring to Mr. Clinton's post-election attack on women's groups who were pressuring him to name more women to his Cabinet.

Ms. Woods and others say it is hard to believe, or embrace, Ms. Jones, since she and her story have been pushed and packaged by right-wing groups and politicos with obvious anti-Clinton agendas.


Indeed, Ms. Jones made her debut at a news conference arranged by a leading Clinton enemy, Cliff Jackson, during a conservative political gathering.

"I refuse to close my eyes to who is putting all this forth," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for a Feminist Majority. "The groups surrounding this case are no friends of ending sex discrimination in the workplace. Some have been hostile to the concept of [confronting] sexual harassment. So you're wondering, is this really about this incident, or is this a political campaign against the president?"

A bid for NOW

This week, some of Ms. Jones' supporters, such as Pat Mahoney, head of the staunchly anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and the Christian Defense Coalition, tried to enlist the support of the National Organization for Women and other women's advocacy groups.

But last week, Mr. Mahoney stood across the courtroom from the same women's groups he's now appealing to when the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding the creation of safety zones outside the entrances to abortion clinics.

"These are people who've spent their lives standing in the doorway, blocking women, attacking the very concept of zTC women's liberation and equality," says Ms. Smeal. "It's hard to see past that."


Several women's advocates also note that, in the Hill case, unlike this case, they were fighting for Ms. Hill's right to have a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which had originally dismissed the sexual harassment charges as unimportant.

Ms. Jones, says Ms. Lichtman, "is going to have her day in court. She's going to have a fair hearing."