My neighbor approaches me with what I have come to recognize as his "gotcha" smile. "Well," he drawls, swinging his briefcase from one hand to the other, "How come your women's groups aren't rushing to the defense of Paula Jones?"
Now, how exactly women's groups became "mine" in his mind is a story for another day. But the point that he wants to stick to me has become a needle in the conservative arsenal.
Any number of people are asking, with the same slight smirk, about those of us who wore "Honk if You Believe Anita" stickers on our car bumpers. How come we haven't made a beep since Paula Jones officially filed suit against President Clinton for sexual harassment?
Doesn't this prove that we -- that's we a) feminists, b) Democrats, c) Hill supporters, d) All of the above -- are guilty of maintaining a double standard for Bill and Clarence?
This accusation of a double standard comes largely from the very people who regarded Anita Hill as a dastardly liar but find Paula Jones a pure truth-seeker. It also comes from Bob Packwood, the senator who said last weekend, "The thing that intrigues me most is the way the women's groups look for a way to absolutely excoriate me and look for some way to attempt to exonerate the president."
I have no doubt that double and triple and quadruple standards exist. We are all more likely to believe the worst about people we already believe the very bad about. We weigh the importance of accusations against what we like and dislike. If you doubt that, compare the recent assessments of Richard Nixon by his political friends and foes.
As for sexual harassment, it was easier for the opponents of Clarence Thomas to welcome Anita Hill. It's easier for those who wish President Clinton ill to wish Paula Jones well. For the record, however, it was not easy for women's-rights activists to turnon Senator Packwood until he made it easy.
But the assumption behind my neighbor's needle is that those who stand for women are always supposed to stand with women. That those who oppose sexual harassment are required by the canons of sisterhood to believe any woman who charges sexual harassment.
Not exactly. You don't have to check your skepticism at the door of feminism anymore than you have to check your bra. You don't have to trade in objectivity for faith. Nor do you have to give up the ability to distinguish between true and false, right and wrong, just because they cross gender lines.
If there is a party line in the women's movement, it looks like the old telephone party lines with everyone talking at once. Two and a half years after Anita Hill made sexual harassment a household word, manyof us are still defining and refining it. Case by case.
In my own small line of vision, I have seen one abusive man finally get his just deserts. But I have also seen one man whose jokes deserve an occasional groan get slapped with a suit.
In the post-Hill atmosphere, it has finally, belatedly become possible for victims of sexual harassment to speak up and be believed. But taking the charge seriously doesn't mean taking every accuser seriously. Not every woman is a victim and not every pass is a federal offense.
As for President Clinton and Mrs. Jones, I don't have a clue what, if anything, happened in a Little Rock hotel room where she alleges now that her civil rights were violated. I know if Bill were just another Joe, she would have trouble getting a lawyer. It is notclear if even her version fits the charges of harassment or "intentional infliction of emotional distress."
But there's probably enough here to get to trial. So emerges the specter of a true spectacle featuring a woman being asked to describe what she meant by "distinguishing characteristics in Clinton's genital area." Hail to the chief.
You don't need a double standard to find this an appalling prospect. Nor do you give up your membership in the "movement" because you have doubts about Paula. Her original coming-out party at a conservative press conference, her earlier attempt to trade money for silence, not to mention mixed reports from her family about her motives -- don't make for a perfect profile.
"As a society," said Anita Hill last weekend, "we have to decide, are we serious enough about these kinds of behavior to contemplate the fact that sometimes we're not going to like the outcome of the cases?"
Fair enough. But honk if you believe in Paula? For the moment, keep both hands on the wheel.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.