The Slate Gist

Feminism, Clinton, and Harassment

Last month, feminist foremother Gloria Steinem took to the New York Times op-ed page to argue that the sexual harassment laws should not protect Paula Jones. Steinem’s position was roundly dismissed as a scholastic contortion of logic, performed to protect her ideological friend Bill Clinton. Conservatives gloated over the feminist’s hypocrisy on sexual harassment, the movement’s sacred cow. No less than the New York Times editorial page accused Steinem of selling out her cause. Did Steinem and the feminists sacrifice their principles to protect Bill Clinton? What are the different feminist schools of thought on sexual harassment? How have they changed post-Clinton?

Here, in descending order of sternness, are the five major groups (for a refresher on harassment law and its history, click):

1MacKinnonites. This, the so-called radical feminist position, is trumpeted primarily by academics who take their cues from law professor Catharine MacKinnon, who holds appointments at the law schools of the universities of Michigan and Chicago. MacKinnon argues that sexual harassment laws are a necessary corrective to the oppressive patriarchy of the workplace, and she wants current laws stiffened. For instance, she would prohibit men from having sex with subordinate female co-workers. MacKinnonites believe that the disparities of power in these relationships render them exploitative by definition.

MacKinnon’s position, however, is hardly fringe. While a grad student at Yale, she formulated the theory behind the current practice of sexual harassment law–that the employment discrimination protections in the 1964 Civil Rights Act could be used to regulate workplace behavior such as dirty jokes and unwelcome advances. MacKinnon argues that many journalists distort her work, by caricaturing her as a neopuritan. To prove her reasonableness, she concedes that Clinton shouldn’t be prosecuted–at least not for sexually harassing Monica Lewinsky. The Lewinsky affair, she believes, has sparked a hysterical backlash against sexual harassment laws.

2 NOWistas. Mainstream women’s groups wouldn’t go as far as the MacKinnonites and prohibit all sexual contact between superiors and subordinates. But with the Clarence Thomas (1991) and Bob Packwood (1995) controversies, these groups took the stance that female accusers always deserve the presumption of veracity in sexual harassment cases. Women, they claimed, “don’t make these things up.” And feminists have an obligation to counter the prevailing tendency to dismiss accusers as “nutty and slutty.” But, when it came to Paula Jones, only a handful of feminists–e.g., The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt–consistently supported her case with similar arguments. Initially, most women’s groups–notably the National Organization for Women–maintained a calculated silence. Only after months of the press chiding them for their “double standard” did the groups begin to invoke the presumption on behalf of Kathleen Willey.

Now that it appears the Jones case will do Clinton no harm, feminist groups have become more vocal. NOW President Patricia Ireland worries publicly that the dismissal of the Jones case will deter other women from bringing sexual harassment claims. Jones’ case illustrates how difficult it is for a woman to get her day in court. Ireland and others also worry about a possible tumble down a slippery slope, with men making passes at women now that they have seen Clinton get away with it.

3 Strict Constructionists. This group, led by Yale Law School Professor Vicki Schultz, argues that harassment law unhealthily obsesses over sex in the workplace. Conservative judges, Schultz argues, have used sexual harassment law as a pretext for preserving “women’s virtue.” And in precedent-setting decisions, judges imply that there is no such thing as harassment if there is no sex involved. This, she argues, has led these judges to discount the types of employment discrimination–unfair promotion practice, workplace taunts, etc.–the law was originally intended to check. Pundits tend to like the Schultz position because it allows them to continue to defend the idea of sexual harassment law while attacking cases like Paula Jones’, which focuses on an alleged sexual act but makes no convincing showing of damage to her career.

4One Free Passers. In her now-notorious op-ed, Gloria Steinem argued that Clinton should not be penalized for his “boorish” come-ons. Sexual harassment, she claims, was born out of the feminist proposition that with sexual advances, “no means no; yes means yes.” And when Jones and Willey said “no,” Clinton backed off. Steinem and others in her camp, such as Backlash author Susan Faludi, argue there is no inconsistency between their support of Clinton and condemnations of Packwood and Thomas: Unlike Clinton, they argue, Packwood and Thomas interpreted “no” as “yes” and repeated their unwelcome advances (although most of Packwood’s alleged passes were single tries). Steinem’s distinction is one side of a longstanding legal debate over whether a one-time unwelcome advance is enough to create a hostile working environment. The courts divide on whether a one-time deed is sufficient, but many feminist legal thinkers take Steinem’s side.

5 Libertarian Hedonists. The lib-hed position goes a step beyond the strict constructionist position. Articulated by self-proclaimed iconoclasts such as Camille Paglia and Katie Roiphe, it argues that we’ve become paranoid about sexual harassment, criminalizing consensual office sex and flirtation. Lib-heds note the proliferation of sexual harassment cases referred to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission since Anita Hill testified before the Senate–from nearly 8,000 to over 15,000 per year. While the critique echoes conservative complaints about multiculturalism (harassment law makes women helpless victims), it also incorporates a libertarian strain (government should not pry into consensual sexual relations) and an Epicurean one (we shouldn’t penalize people with active libidos; so long as nobody gets hurt–or helped–who cares?).

If you missed the link to the refresher on harassment law and its history, click.