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Private Matters, Public Affairs

<i> Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics."</i>

There are two ways to look at the dismissal of Paula Corbin Jones’ lawsuit against President Bill Clinton. One way is legal: Judge Susan Webber Wright never reached the question of whether to believe her or him. Instead, as the rules require, she looked at the facts alleged by Jones and concluded that, even if true, they were not legally sufficient to support Jones’ claims.

Or you could look at it as an illustration of the maxim that big hair is big hair--that social status, in other words, is social status. The dismissal said quite a bit about what the judge thought about Jones’ story, which was not much. On the face of the opinion, Jones’ socioeconomic standing helped shape Wright’s attitude. In fact, this is generally true of the women publicly connected with the president: Where they stand in the court of public opinion depends on where they sit on the ladder of class.

Jones perches on the lowest rung. Her basement-level clerical job with the Arkansas state government fixed her work and economic status. Pictures of her from that time bear the marks of home-made efforts at beauty: makeup applied not wisely but too well, the hair a failed attempt at a pre-Raphaelite look. Her later marriage did not push her far up the hill. By the time she acquired a proper media advisor, who gave her a strikingly effective makeover, it was too late to change initial impressions.

The claims Jones made against Clinton--sexual assault and harassment, infliction of emotional distress--are not easy to prove. To show harassment, a plaintiff must demonstrate not just a nonconsensual sexual encounter but resulting damage on the job, through retaliation or a hostile work environment. To show infliction of emotional distress, she must demonstrate not only that the defendant behaved outrageously but that the resulting distress was severe.

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Wright did not think Jones suffered significant damage. Jones claimed she was discouraged from seeking job advancement, the opinion said, but “there is no record of the plaintiff ever applying for another job” within her agency. Jones said her supervisors downgraded her within the office, but “there was no diminution in salary or a change in her job classification.” “She never missed a day of work,” the opinion noted, and “never consulted a psychiatrist, psychologist or incurred medical bills as a result of that alleged incident.”

There are good reasons for the law to hesitate before finding sexual harassment, but this reluctance weighs especially heavy on a woman like Jones. When compared with, say your basic female lawyer or MBA, such a woman is probably easier to discourage. Once disheartened, she will not seek a better position; thus, there will be no rejected job applications. Because her work is so routinized, varying her job conditions in small ways can convey a big drop in status without resorting to gross changes in salary, classification or official performance ratings. She is less likely than her more sophisticated, better-heeled sisters to turn to medical therapy; and, emotional distress or no emotional distress, she has to keep going to work.

With Gennifer Flowers, the law did not stand in the way of people’s crediting her account of an affair with Clinton; but they refused to believe her anyway. Flowers was more upscale than Jones. She had been a reporter, and she worked for the state of Arkansas at a level considerably higher than Jones’. She had tapes of Clinton saying incriminating things to her. She was even telling the now partly undisputed truth.

But she had sold her story to the tabloids, and the chattering class thought the cash nexus delegitimated everything she said. They saw her cut-rate bimbo appearance as evidence that she was not tasteful or financially sound and had, therefore, made up her story for money. She could have entrapped Clinton. She could have doctored the tapes. She could have lied.

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This mistrust, like Wright’s skepticism, falls disproportionately on certain kinds of women. We mistrust those who are financially needy. We do not feel the same about those motivated by, say, a lust for power.

When we get to Kathleen E. Willey, we have moved on up. (We must skip over Monica S. Lewinsky, whose credibility is untested because she has not yet settled on a public story. Her lawyer, William H. Ginsburg, now seems crazy like a fox.) Willey, initially a White House volunteer, did have money. She knew Clinton from campaign-contributor circles. True, she, too, had financial problems, which was why she asked Clinton for a job. But these troubles initially were viewed as the product of sudden calamity, not as a chronic condition that affected her underlying status. She appeared on “60 Minutes” well-groomed and dignified, in pearls, expensive and utterly credible. Her story of Clinton’s predatory behavior rocked the administration.

But not for long. First, the White House released Willey’s fawning letters to the president after his allegedly bad behavior. Some argued, as they had about Anita F. Hill, that a woman’s friendliness with her harasser didn’t show she was a liar, only that she still needed him. Still, Willey’s letters enabled the White House to ask what Wright asked Jones: If she was so upset, why didn’t she show it?

Then it emerged that Willey’s financial trouble was long term, and that she had tried to get tabloid money for her tale. Here was Flowers revisited. The Willey furor subsided.

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A still higher-status woman, a former Miss America, who is now an actress in a syndicated TV show, has emerged to say she and Clinton had consensual sex 15 years ago. Her motive seems positively friendly to the president: She says she made her statement to keep people from believing a story that he had raped her. She seemed not to want anything from either Clinton or the public. She looks, in short, believable. The White House, this time, has not even denied her claim.

On the other hand, she did pose for Playboy some years ago. Just wait until the time if and when the ex-Miss America reveals a personal need or ambition in all of this. It won’t be 10 minutes before she, too, is tossed onto the reputational boneyard that these scandals have become.

The same vulnerabilities that make some women more likely to be harassed are the ones that make them less likely to be believed. So today’s openness about sexual harassment, touted as a way of closing the gap between powerful men and powerless women, may just reveal, once again, the gap between women whose social class gives them means of protecting themselves and women who have no such advantage.


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