As the case involving accusations of sexual harassment against the most powerful man in the country was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court recently, activists from the nation's most powerful feminist organization were watching closely. At a time when headlines are full of stories about men using sexual harassment to intimidate women, we are concerned that Paula Jones' charges against President Clinton be taken seriously.
In 1994 we distributed a statement outlining the principles we stand by. It read, in part: "We know that sexual harassers are everywhere -- in high public positions, in executive suites and even in pulpits. In fact, powerful men may be more likely to harass women because some of these men treat harassment as a fringe benefit, a privilege of power. Every Paula Jones deserves to be heard, no matter how old she is and how long ago the incident occurred, no matter what kind of accent she has or how much money she makes, and no matter whom she associates with."
However, Paula Jones picked her forum and she picked her friends. The forum Jones chose is federal court, and her case has been working its way through the system. The issue before the Supreme Court now is not should Paula Jones be heard -- even though Newsweek's cover story framed it that way -- but rather when should she be heard. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Clinton v. Jones by the end of this term in late June or early July.
Since Jones is guaranteed her day in court, we will not rally public support for her until NOW leaders have the kind of information they have had in similar cases. We protested in favor of open Senate hearings, but didn't put on our 'I believe Anita Hill' buttons until we had seen and heard both Hill and Clarence Thomas testify under oath. We didn't protest against Bob Packwood until we talked with his accusers and he initially said he would not contest their charges.
Whether intentionally or inadvertently setting NOW up for criticism, Jones declined to talk with NOW President Patricia Ireland, but instead aligned herself with Pat Robertson, right wing publicist Floyd Brown and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry.
When the case was first filed, Ireland agreed to a conference call with Paula Jones, and even offered to fly out to California at NOW's expense to meet with her. At the last minute, her lawyer told Ireland that Jones was shopping for a dress for a court appearance and couldn't be on the call. When facing reporters the next day Jones seemed to dismiss Ireland's availability rather disdainfully. NOW leaders talked with Jones' attorneys in 1994, but they never asked for NOW's assistance. We wouldn't force ourselves on an unwilling plaintiff anymore than a man should force himself on an unwilling woman.
After the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case, one of Jones' lawyers went before journalists to denounce feminists vehemently for not rallying on her behalf. Joseph Cammarata accused us of being unprincipled and hypocritical. It was a pretty stunning display of hypocrisy from an attorney who for two years failed to send documents he had promised on the Jones case and only followed up with us after his tirade against us on the courthouse steps.
In a Nightline interview also featuring Ireland, Cammarata said feminists ought to advocate that Jones be heard sooner rather than later. We have not taken a position on the narrow question of temporary presidential immunity that is before the court. We are well aware that it is important for harassment charges to be considered in a timely manner, that justice delayed can be justice denied. However, the Supreme Court must balance Jones' right to a timely trial against the country's right not to have its president distracted by a potentially explosive lawsuit.
Our positions on cases involving allegations of sexual harassment against top public officials are not based on partisan politics. Feminist principles trump practical politics, and we have not pulled any punches -- not even against our erstwhile allies. We protested at the White House when President Clinton said he would sign the welfare repeal bill, warning that many of our activists would not work on his re-election if he did. And we called for the resignation of a strong abortion-rights backer like Packwood at a time when we needed every vote we could get in the U.S. Senate.
NOW took a lead role among other women's rights and progressive groups in both of those instances and -- if the facts merit it -- may ultimately play the same role in the Jones case. But we will not be rushed to judgment by those who wish to use this case to advance their own political agendas. Given the history of partisan politics surrounding this case and the ensuing media feeding frenzy, the facts must be established in a court of law and not only in the court of public opinion.
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