Clinton's Role in Heightening Sexual-Harassment Debate Women's Rights Activists and Legal Experts Divided on Scandal Impact

By Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 24, 1999 | Go to article overview

Clinton's Role in Heightening Sexual-Harassment Debate Women's Rights Activists and Legal Experts Divided on Scandal Impact


Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Never before has the chief executive of the United States been so deeply and personally embroiled in the issue of sexual misconduct in the workplace.

On matters of policy - apart from his personal behavior - Bill Clinton receives high marks from women's rights groups and women in general. Mr. Clinton has done more than perhaps any other president to advance the causes of American women.

But in the wake of the year-long scandal involving Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones, Clinton's legacy in the area of sexual-harassment law remains an open question. Will the scandal help eliminate illegal gender discrimination by demonstrating to the nation the necessity for such laws? Or will the president's Houdini-like political survival suggest to would-be harassers (and their potential victims) that if a man is powerful enough and hires the right lawyers he can get away with almost anything? Not since the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 have Americans been so starkly confronted with the issue. Women's rights activists and other legal experts, however, are divided on the impact of the scandal. Some say it will discourage women from believing that the law can protect them. Others say it will have the exact opposite effect, provoking women to fight even harder to establish their rights in the workplace. Many analysts are torn between the president's good points and his bad points. "On one hand you can say if you are interested in the overall equality of women as a group you have to say 'I would take Bill Clinton,' " says Nancy Dowd, a law professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "But his conduct has been so demeaning that he has set women back enormously." Although Clinton settled the Jones lawsuit and avoided being thrown out of office, he still faces the possibility of being fined by a federal judge for being less than truthful under oath in the Jones case. In addition, he could be prosecuted by the independent counsel's office on perjury and obstruction of justice charges. ONLY the Jones aspect of the scandal relates directly to alleged sexual harassment by the president. But women's rights experts say they are also troubled by aspects of the Lewinsky matter, including alleged attempts by the White House to undermine Ms. Lewinsky's credibility when it appeared she might tell the truth about her relationship with Clinton. It's the same tactic most women face when they file a sexual-harassment suit. "Usually in high profile he-said, she-said cases, she loses. And he was lying," says Jane Aiken, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Ms. Aiken says one positive outcome of the Clinton- Lewinsky scandal will be that jurors in future sexual- harassment cases will remember Lewinsky and be much more suspicious of male defendants who attack the credibility of a female plaintiff. …

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