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Conflict Of Interests Women Struggle To Reconcile Accusations, Clinton Support

SUNDAY, MARCH 22, 1998

Some women are calling it the Clinton conundrum.

Clinton, they say, has done more for women than any other president. At the same time, he stands accused of sexually harassing and debasing women.

What’s a feminist to do?

In most cases, the answer is a pragmatic “nothing.”

In interviews last week, Inland Northwest women who voted for Clinton talked about nagging doubts and sinking feelings. But hardly anyone who loves the president for his record on women’s issues is willing to withdraw her support over the barrage of allegations against him.

“We are in a no-win situation,” said Carol Vines, manager of the women’s studies center at Eastern Washington University.

If the stories are true, the leader of the free world is a lecherous creep - even in the Oval Office. If the stories are false, the cause of women victims of sexual harassment has been set back decades, Vines said.

“I really want to wait and see what the evidence is,” she said. “He’s still the best president women have ever had.”

Other women echoed her opinion, pointing to the administration’s stands on health and child care, education and family leave. Clinton, they say, appointed the country’s first female secretary of state and attorney general. He’s not afraid to treat his wife as an equal, sharing political power with her.

Polls show women continue to rate Clinton’s work as president more highly than men, and to be more skeptical of the allegations against him.

“I have real mixed thoughts at the moment,” said Rose Mary Volbrecht, associate professor of philosophy at Gonzaga University and a former women’s studies director.

“I feel like I go back and forth every day. There’s a lot of hypocrisy here. We would like to believe that people in positions of power do not engage in this type of abusive behavior,” Volbrecht said.

“But you start talking to other women, and we know it goes on. That doesn’t mean we excuse it, but we have to verify it before we do anything.”

That’s where many women get hung up. Their choices, they say, fall into three categories: Believe the allegations and choose to live with it; believe the charges and call for Clinton’s impeachment; or distrust the allegations and simply carry on.

“I guess I can live with it,” said Shelley Cook, a surgical nurse who lives in Coeur d’Alene. “If he were running for election again, then I would have a different decision to make. But right now, our choice is live with him or kick him out of office. Which would be worse for the country?”

Others are opting for none-of-the-above. They are taking a wait-and-see approach, reserving judgment and hoping for the best.

“I don’t quite know how to sort it out, and I’m kind of tired of trying,” said the Rev. Kristi Philip of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane. “If this is like other cases of allegations of sexual harassment, it may never get sorted out. We may never learn the truth.”

While many women said they had concerns about the tactics of Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor appointed to investigate Clinton, they held out hope for the judicial system to sort through piles of evidence.

“All we have access to is allegations, denials, speculation and accusations,” Philip said. “I think it’s much more complex than it appears on the surface. There are so many layers to it.”

Women said they are trying to look past the salacious detail in search of motive.

Many women who watched former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey’s “60 Minutes” interview found her credible at first. Willey said Clinton groped her when she went to him seeking a paid job in 1993. Clinton has denied the accusation.

Willey’s credibility was undermined - not by evidence that she continued to have a cordial relationship with Clinton - but by reports detailing her pursuit of a lucrative book deal for her story.

When Willey’s close friend said Willey asked her to lie in order to verify the Clinton encounter, many women said they moved her into the category of questionable accusers, along with Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky.

“I don’t understand the world of lies and betrayal these women are living in. It just doesn’t compute for me,” Vines said. “I don’t have any friends that I would ask to lie for me. And I don’t think I would lie for any of my friends.”

While they wade through new information every day, women are wondering what happened to the rest of the issues women care about.

“Frankly, I’d rather know what happened to his child-care proposal,” said state Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. “I’m not interested in speculating about Clinton’s sexual escapades. I think those should be dealt with according to the law.”

Ultimately, many women are left trying to weigh the greater good. It’s an ambiguous situation at best, but one many women are accustomed to.

“There’s a certain kind of manipulation of women by the media on this issue. The media wants to get women to fight with each other,” said Volbrecht. “It’s ridiculous to think that women, or even feminists, all have the same view.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

Tags: ethics

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