Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Packwood Case Breaks New Ground in Senate Women Lawmakers See a Change in Climate of Debate on Misconduct

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Packwood Case Breaks New Ground in Senate Women Lawmakers See a Change in Climate of Debate on Misconduct

Article excerpt

THE Packwood story is proving to be a watershed for the issue of sexual misconduct in high places.

How the United States Senate has handled the charges against one of its own, say leaders of women's advocacy groups, shows an important change in attitude. And while the process of education on such matters has a long way to go, they add, more men now "get it" (to use the phrase coined during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings), and the increased number of women in Congress has made a big difference.

Mr. Packwood is the Republican senator from Oregon charged by more than two dozen former staff members and campaign workers with unwanted sexual advances. He is alleged to have intimidated some of those women when the charges - which were made over a period of more than two decades - first surfaced a year ago. He is also being investigated for illegally soliciting lobbyists to provide employment for his former wife. Both the Senate ethics committee and the Justice Department are probing the charges.

While lawmakers have had to be "dragged kicking and screaming on the issue of sexual harassment and abuse of power, they are moving," says Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW).

"The club atmosphere of the Senate has a certain set of rules," Ms. Ireland says, "but women and some of the men are now willing to break those rules." The bipartisan Senate ethics committee has doggedly pursued the Packwood charges, and the full Senate recently voted 94 to 6 to subpoena Packwood's diaries.

A key reason why, Ireland says, is that women in the Senate have been willing to speak out - despite concern over committee assignments and the possibility of offending their colleagues.

She cites Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a freshman Democrat who listened quietly to the debate over whether to subpoena the Packwood diaries before deciding she was the only one in the Senate with the background and perspective of millions of American women.

A former secretary herself, Senator Murray heard Packwood talk about dictating his thoughts on other senators' sex lives to a woman in his office, and she thought: "How awful to be a secretary and sit there and have to take those notes."

In a tough speech on the Senate floor, Murray told of being "deeply disturbed" hearing lawmakers in elevators and hallways express reluctance to pursue the charges against Packwood. A vote against the subpoena motion, she told them, would send a "clear message to every woman in this country: If you are harassed, keep quiet, say nothing, the cards are stacked against you ever winning.

"I had worked for a year to earn the respect of my colleagues here, and I didn't want to have to take the risk of undoing that," she said. "But I also knew that I had a responsibility to my own feelings and to the feelings I had heard in many places. …

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