IMAGINE that Anita Hill had come forward with her accusations against Clarence Thomas more than a year after he had been confirmed by the Senate.
Imagine that she had chosen to introduce herself to the American people at a press conference sponsored by the ACLU and NOW, accompanied by a sworn enemy of Judge Thomas who had made a cottage industry of digging up dirt.
Imagine that a friend of the judge was willing to swear under oath that he had been told by an attorney for Ms. Hill that she might be persuaded not to go public in exchange for a job.
Imagine that she then announced that the only way to get satisfaction was to bring a suit asking for $700,000 in damages.
Would Americans have responded to Anita Hill in a different fashion than they did three years ago?
You bet they would have.
And therein lies an essential difference between the cases of Professor Hill and Paula Jones, the woman who has gone to court to get the president to pay up for an alleged outrage in a hotel room.
The complaint by conservatives that feminists, who rallied round Professor Hill, have not done the same for Ms. Jones reminds me of sitting in a meeting next to the picture editor of the Times, the only other woman in the room.
When a clerk came in with the photographs for that day's paper, he gave them to me.
Because, of course, all women are the same woman. And, according to those who insist that feminists should embrace Ms. Jones unquestioningly, all women's stories are the same story.
That's ridiculous and condescending. Each instance of sexual harassment has to be judged on its own merits. Facts, timing, motives, credibility: all must be considered before we make up our minds what to believe.
On all those counts Ms. Jones sorely needed better advice and counsel. Her first public appearance, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, led to suspicions of political motivation or manipulation. The appearance with her of Cliff Jackson, who instead of a life has a vendetta against Mr. Clinton, smacks of a smear campaign. Bringing a suit for damages after an attorney first tried to negotiate a settlement in which she and her husband would get jobs if she kept mum makes the question of gain a very real one.
Above all, her timing is troublesome. Why did she not make these charges of sexual harassment in time to inform the choice of Americans at the polls in 1992?
Ms. Hill herself had made the atmosphere somewhat more hospitable for such charges by the time the presidential election rolled around. And Gennifer Flowers had broken silence about Mr. Clinton's alleged womanizing. At a time when this country was deeply embroiled in discussions about Mr. Clinton's private behavior and how much it mattered in public life, why didn't Paula Corbin Jones come forward and say, "Wait until you hear what he did to me!"?
Time, they say, wounds all heels. Justice Thomas' tenure on the high court is shadowed not by Ms. Hill's charges but by his own lack of stature. The taxpayers could save on the salaries of his staff if Justice Scalia was simply given two votes.
The same may be true of Mr. Clinton. Many voters say they care about health care, crime and the economy, not his private life; some feminists are disheartened by his reputation and the seaminess of this alleged incident. In 1996, the first opportunity she has provided us to use the allegations she now proffers, both groups may decide Paula Jones' story of being solicited for oral sex pales beside the president's accomplishments -- or lack of same.
There's no doubt liberal ideology plays a clear role in all this, making feminists less eager to embrace the accuser of a pro-choice president than that of a conservative jurist. There's no doubt feminist ideology should make us demand that Ms. Jones not be crucified on the altar of rumor and sexual innuendo, as Ms. Hill was.
But that's no reason to let right-wing activists, no friends to either the president, women, or the issue of sexual harassment, shame us into foolish lock step. We feminists, of all people, know that all women are not the same woman, all stories not the same story. Accept, knee-jerk, each accusation without looking at how and why it came to be made? That's not feminism, it's credulity.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.