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Clinton Allegations Dividing Feminists

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Women’s rights advocates broke ranks Sunday over allegations that President Clinton groped a female volunteer in the White House, reflecting a fundamental struggle to determine what constitutes sexual harassment and whether a popular Democratic president engaged in it.

At issue is a 1993 encounter between Clinton and former volunteer Kathleen E. Willey, who said in a nationally televised interview that the president embraced her in a hallway adjoining the Oval Office, fondled her breast and placed her hand on his genitals. Clinton has vigorously denied Willey’s characterization of the incident.

Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, said Willey’s account, if true, may constitute a case of “sexual assault.”

“She’s arguing he physically touched her and forced her hand on him. That’s pretty serious stuff,” Ireland said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

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Offering a far different assessment, Gloria Steinem, a founder of the feminist movement, discounted the seriousness of the charge because “President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.”

In an opinion piece published in Sunday’s New York Times, Steinem said the president may have “made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life,” but he is “not guilty of sexual harassment” because it happened only once and he backed away when rebuffed.

“This is very different from the cases of Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood,” Steinem said, because the controversial Supreme Court justice and former U.S. senator were accused of making repeated unwanted advances to women.

During his 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Thomas weathered an allegation that he sexually harassed a subordinate, Anita Faye Hill. Packwood, a longtime Republican senator from Oregon, resigned from office in 1995 after the Senate Ethics Committee recommended his expulsion for sexual and official misconduct.

Taking something of a middle ground, Eleanor Smeal, who heads the Fund for the Feminist Majority, said Willey’s story is serious for two reasons. It is “in an employment setting. She is asking for a job. And if what she says is true, there is touching and that is a form of misconduct,” Smeal said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

But Smeal also noted that liberal feminists see “a political overtone” to the accusations about Clinton and the sexual harassment case brought against him by Paula Corbin Jones.

The array of sexual misconduct charges involving the president has put feminists and many Democratic women in a difficult spot. Most have strongly supported Clinton, in part because of his stands on issues such as abortion, child care, education and women’s rights.

But until now, they have tended to take a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment by powerful men. In 1991, Democratic women in the House of Representatives marched to the Senate chamber demanding a hearing over Hill’s charges against Thomas.

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Anger over Thomas’ confirmation by the nearly all-male Senate inspired the so-called “Year of the Woman” in 1992 and was cited as a contributing factor in the election of Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer in California and Carol Moseley Braun in Illinois.

The three have said little in response to the complaints of unwanted groping voiced by Willey or Clinton’s other alleged sexual improprieties. Last week, both Feinstein and Boxer said Willey’s charges should be investigated, but they added that the facts remain unclear.

“At this stage we’re still at ‘he said, she said,’ ” Moseley Braun said on ABC-TV’s “This Week.”

“We have a presumption of innocence that attaches to any accusation that’s denied,” she said.

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Moseley Braun said women will look at the bigger picture and support the president because of his political stands.

Republican women said they see hypocrisy in the stance taken by their Democratic counterparts.

“There’s sort of a selective outrage here,” Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.) said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Northup said women are treated far more professionally in the workplace today than they were 30 years ago. And, she added, “I think it would be a terrible shame if, in order to protect somebody political, we retracted those standards.”

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Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said Steinem’s column dismissing the president’s alleged groping of Willey is “shocking.”

“It’s a horrible message,” Snowe said on “Face the Nation.” “The fact is, Gloria Steinem should have been writing a column asking the president of the United States for an explanation, a candid explanation to the American people.”

Appearing on the same program, Sen. Susan M. Collins, also a Maine Republican, said she is “incredulous” at Steinem’s response.

“We have a case of unwanted touching,” Collins said. “And this is a case of the White House bringing the full weight of its propaganda machine down on this unfortunate woman.”

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In a related development, Newsweek magazine reported that Willey said the White House is trying to “make me look like a wacko” by distributing copies of friendly letters she sent to Clinton, including nine after the alleged 1993 encounter. The White House made the correspondence public last week after Willey’s March 15 interview on “60 Minutes.”

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said the White House has erred by invoking “executive privilege” to shield two presidential aides from testifying fully in Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s investigation of the Monica S. Lewinsky matter.

“I think it will damage the credibility. It looks like they have something to hide,” Lott said on “Meet the Press.”


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