March 17, 1998 in Nation/World

Women’s Groups Starting To Notice ‘If It’s True, It’s Sexual Assault,’ Says Now Chief Of Latest Charge

Michael Klein Philadelphia Inquirer
 
Tags:ethics

Is the honeymoon over?

Women’s groups, which for years have quietly and staunchly stood by President Clinton despite allegations he was a womanizer, are beginning to speak out after former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey told a national television audience Sunday night he groped her in the White House in 1993.

Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women and an unabashed Clinton supporter, Monday said the women’s movement had been shaken by the latest allegation, which the president has denied.

“The cumulation of stories starts to affect one’s opinions,” Ireland said in a telephone interview. “I do think we are now moving from talking about a womanizer to talking about, perhaps, a predator. He once was what I like to call a likable rogue. He’s moving into a scary man.

“If it’s true, it’s sexual assault,” Ireland said.

Ireland said Willey was “compelling” on “60 Minutes” Sunday night as she described how she had gone to the president seeking a paying job and how Clinton groped and kissed her in a hallway off the Oval Office. Willey, who said she gave the same account to a grand jury, also said the president was lying when he denied the encounter.

Afterwards, Ireland recalled thinking: “This is sad.”

She said she also felt “awkward,” given Clinton’s support of NOW’s causes, including abortion rights, child care and workplace issues such as sexual harassment.

“I’m still eager to see other evidence, other witnesses, other documents, before I make my decision about him,” Ireland said.

But Ireland herself has come under attack.

“Ah!” said Camille Paglia, the acerbic feminist and University of the Arts professor. “Now, she’s under the cruel spotlight!”

Paglia Monday accused NOW and many women’s groups of being “Democrats first and feminists second,” notably for failing to support Paula Jones in her harassment lawsuit against Clinton.

“Now, all of a sudden, Ireland is escalating the rhetoric,” Paglia said. “It’s like the harassment train has already left the station and here she is, wildly trying to catch the last caboose.”

Paglia noted NOW came to the aid of law professor Anita Hill, who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearings.

Ireland said she had approached Jones and offered support, but Jones rebuffed her. (Women’s groups did complain last summer when one of Clinton’s lawyers suggested he would make Jones’ sexual history an issue in her harassment case.)

Willey, who was denounced by Clinton attorney Robert Bennett after she said her piece Sunday, has the “right to speak out and take action against sexual harassment,” said Suzanne Sheehan Becker, president of Womens Way in Philadelphia.

Becker ruefully pointed out the case of Army Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney, who was acquitted last week of pressuring six military women for sex and convicted of only one of 19 counts, obstruction of justice.

“One of his accusers … said she would not encourage other women to speak out when they have been sexually harassed,” Becker said.

Hill herself said in an interview Monday that it was inevitable politics would be a factor in how women’s groups view allegations of sexual misconduct by Clinton.

“Let’s just face it: If this turns out to be true, this is going to be a big embarrassment for the many women’s groups who supported Bill Clinton, and I think that in many ways, to be honest, we don’t want to deal with that embarrassment.”


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