Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / January 28, 1998 / 1 Shevat, 5758
Clinton, Lewinsky, and Politics vs. principle
Patricia Ireland, Eleanor Smeal, Anita Hill, call your office. The most important sexual harassment case in U.S. history is unfolding in Washington, and the leaders of the National Organization for Women, the Feminist Majority and the National Women's Political Caucus are nowhere to be found. Monica Lewinsky, who has accused President Clinton of engaging her in a year-and-a-half long exploitive and demeaning sexual relationship, is very much in need of some sisterly support. But the paragons of feminist solidarity have remained mum. How different is their response this time than their quick embrace of Anita Hill, Paula Coughlin, the Navy lieutenant who blew the whistle on improper goings-on at the Tailgate convention, the 29 women who claimed former Sen. Bob Packwood tried to kiss or fondle them, and virtually every other group of women who ever accused a powerful boss of taking advantage of them?
But do Lewinsky's allegations point to sexual harassment? She hasn't suggested so to date, but she -- and other White House employees, too -- may well have a case if Lewinsky actually engaged in any sexual activity while she worked in the executive branch, even if the activity was consensual. The courts have consistently ruled that sexual harassment can occur even if the victim was not forced to participate in sexual activity against her will.
Many people think sexual harassment happens only when an employer tries to solicit sex in return for a job, a promotion or other favors in the workplace. But only 5 percent of all complaints filed with the Equal Opportunity Commission involve this type of quid pro quo sexual harassment. The other 95 percent of cases involve a so-called "hostile work environment," which can affect not only the female (or, as is increasingly the case, male) employee alleging unwanted sexual advances from a boss or co-worker but other employees who may be aware of sexual activity between a supervisor and his (or her) subordinate.
Let's look at what reportedly happened between Monica Lewinsky and the president: Lewinsky was a 21-year-old White House intern when she began visiting the Oval Office and, at some point, allegedly engaging in intimate sex acts with the president. During this period, she received a promotion to a paid position. If the president in any way hinted that Lewinsky's sexual favors would enhance her prospects of receiving a paid job, staying on at the White House or continuing to receive favored treatment, Lewinsky could claim sexual harassment.
Lewinsky also allegedly complained to her friend and co-worker Linda Tripp that the president was losing interest in her and may have been involved in sexual liaisons with other White House staffers after Lewinsky was transferred to the Pentagon. If she felt that her only way to get back into the White House was to continue to engage in sex acts with the president, she may now be able to claim harassment.
And Lewinsky isn't the only person who could allege sexual harassment in this case. Linda Tripp has already suggested she began taping her conversations with Lewinsky after the president's bellicose attorney, Robert Bennett, called Tripp a liar on national television when she reported having seen another woman, Kathleen E. Willey, emerge from the Oval Office with smeared lipstick and disheveled clothes. Tripp could argue that both this incident and the stories Lewinsky told her created a hostile work environment as well, both at the White House and as a Pentagon employee. She might also be able to show that she was moved out of her White House job in retaliation for what she knew about the Willey incident, which would constitute an even more serious sex discrimination offense than the harassment itself.
And what about those other interns who worked with Lewinsky -- or indeed anyone who worked at the White House when these alleged sexual acts took place? An intern or employee who was not given a job or promotion could claim that this sexualized environment substantially interfered with his or her own work performance, creating an intimidating or hostile work situation. Similar complaints, alleging far less egregious behavior, are filed all the time, leading to disciplinary action against the offender.
Early polls suggest that a substantial portion of the American public believe it's no one's business if the president had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. They seem to be forgetting that Bill Clinton is an employer, Monica Lewinsky was his employee and the alleged sexual activity occurred in the workplace.
Surely, the point hasn't escaped Ireland, Smeal and other feminists, however. You'd think they'd be lining up White House plaintiffs by the score. If Bill Clinton were a CEO, an Army drill sergeant or an assembly line foreman, the feminists would be out for blood. With everyone else in the nation talking about little else, feminist leaders' silence on this issue speaks volumes about their willingness to put politics before
1/21/98: Movement on the Abortion Front