Entries from October 1997

The Politics Of Sexual Harassment

David Frum October 7th, 1997 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Anita Hill is back this fall, with a memoir of her epic battle to block the confirmation of Clarence Thomas as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Alas for her, she took too long to publish. Six years ago, Anita Hill was a feminist icon, an unequalled saint and martyr for her charges of sexual harassment. Today, by contrast, she is an awkward reminder of feminist hypocrisy. What’s made the difference? Another woman, whose name is Paula Jones.

Hill joined the staff of the U.S. Department of Education in 1981, working under the director of the department’s powerful Office of Civil Rights, Clarence Thomas. According to Hill, Thomas repeatedly asked her out on dates. When she refused, she claims, he began to talk to her in sexually loaded ways. Even so, when he was promoted to head the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she accepted his invitation to follow him. With Thomas’s help, she then secured a teaching job in her home state of Oklahoma. Over the next few years, she called Thomas more than a dozen times to solicit favors from him of one sort or another.

Hill’s account of these events has shifted over the years, and she has been caught in many untruths, some small, others not so small. (She originally claimed, for instance, that she only followed Thomas to the EEOC because her job at Education was precarious. In fact the Education job was an ultra-secure civil service slot.) But even if the essentials of her allegation were true, there was a big unanswered question: Was she seriously claiming that jokes about porno movies and a few off-color remarks constituted sexual harassment?

At the time, the answer from feminists was: Yes — Hill’s account of Thomas’s behavior constituted sexual harassment serious enough to bar him from the Supreme Court. Nor could any questions be raised about Hill’s veracity. Women, we were told again and again, never lie.

Not, that is, unless their allegations involve a pro-abortion Democratic president. Three years after Hill, a former employee of the state of Arkansas, Paula Jones, stepped forward to claim that her ultimate boss, Governor Bill Clinton, had sent one of the state troopers in his personal security detail to bring her to his hotel room. There, Jones said, Clinton told her that she ‘made his knees knock,’ dropped his pants, exposed himself, and ordered her to ‘kiss it.’ When she refused, he told her to ‘be smart’ and not tell anyone about the incident. Time passed. He was elected president. She

The evidence of the truthfulness of Jones’ story is much stronger than for Hill’s. (Pre-Hill, Thomas was famous in Washington for the decorousness of his behavior. The Jones story is, alas, completely in character for Clinton.) In any
case, Clinton has effectively conceded the truth of it by twice offering Jones settlements of US$ 700,000. Even so, as journalist Noemie Emery details in a superb article in the fall issue of The Women’s Quarterly, the feminist troops have rallied round Clinton. Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization of Women, has called
Jones a liar. Betty Friedan, patroness of the movement, went so far as to claim that Clinton’s ‘sex life’ — as she calls his proclivity for dropping his pants in front of total strangers — is ’his business.’

So here we are: In 1991, a not-very-credible allegation of crude badinage is a high crime; in 1997, a highly credible allegation of indecent exposure fails even to raise a feminist eyebrow. In 1991, feminists say that a woman must always be believed; in 1997, the same women dismiss Paula Jones as a liar and a whore. What’s changed? In a
debate about the Paula Jones case in the on-line magazine Slate, former Michael Dukakis campaign manager and prominent Clinton apologist Susan Estrich summed it all up very neatly. ‘You believe in principle,’ she said to a fellow-liberal (a man) who stood up for Jones. ‘I believe in politics.’

In the Jones case, the feminists have revealed themselves — so what else is new? — as gross hypocrites. But here’s the final irony. This time, they’re right. The Jones story is squalid and disgraceful. But it isn’t sexual harassment. The far milder Hill story, even if true, is embarrassing. But it surely isn’t sexual harassment either. Harassment is, the dictionaries tell us, a ‘severe and persistent annoyance.’ The annoyance Clinton gave was not persistent; the annoyance allegedly given by Thomas wasn’t severe. There’s no case against either man.

Hill launched an international wave of feminist hysteria. Jones squelched it. In the end, the trailer park woman with the big hair will have taught us more sense than the law professor with the Yale degree.

Originally published in The Financial Post