The Breakfast Table

The Rules Girls Are Back

Yes, I thought that was a rather curious intervention by Eric Alterman, too. Maybe you could try to worm your way back into his good graces by getting caught for having slipped American nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union?

All superb points about the Not Quite a Million Moms. Can I go back though to the even more troubling media treatment of the Claudia Kennedy sex harassment case? Despite their chunky appearance, America’s feminists impress me as an unusually agile bunch, able to execute ideological pirouettes at a speed that would have dazzled Nijinsky. Back during the Anita Hill controversy, we were all introduced to the four rules for understanding sexual harassment:

A) It doesn’t matter that the annoyance in question seems trivial to most men or even to many women: It becomes punishable harassment if the woman on the receiving end was offended by it. Millions of Americans might have thought Anita Hill hysterically over-sensitive even if everything she said were true, but what mattered were Hill’s feelings. B) The willingness of the supposed harassee to continue working with the alleged harasser in no way vitiates the credibility of her complaint. Hill might have followed Thomas from promotion to promotion and telephoned him regularly to ask for favors–but none of that cast doubt on the terrible psychic wound she’d suffered. C) Nor were any skeptical conclusions to be drawn from the lapse of years between the alleged incident and the final report. D) Finally, no questions were to be asked about whether the accuser might not be motivated by politics, envy, resentment, etc.: Her story was to be taken entirely at face value.

Well! All of that blew to smithereens in 1998. Rule A evaporated when Susan Faludi herself publicly announced that the difference between “women” and “girls” was that women knew how to take the occasional pant-dropping and crude pass in stride without getting flustered about it. Rule B was repealed when the release of Kathleen Willey’s letters showed that she had continued to hope for a job from the president who’d groped her. Rule C was shattered with a vengeance in the Juanita Broaddrick case–although she claimed to have been raped, not jostled, nonetheless her long delay in telling her story was taken by every network except NBC as reason enough to ignore it. And finally, of course, there was the sorry fate of Rule D: While Paula Jones’ political commitments seemed slim indeed compared to Anita Hill’s, the fact that she went public with her complaint at a conservative political event in Washington was cited thousands of times as proof that she had to be a liar.

But that was then! Yesterday, on the front page of the New York Times is a long story about sexual harassment in the armed forces that resuscitates every one of the old Anita Hill rules. The outrageous act for which the career of Gen. Kennedy’s alleged harasser is to be ended turns out to be … an undesired kiss. Gen. Kennedy waited four years before producing her complaint and all that time went quietly along with the Army’s decision to hush the matter up, but nobody is to wonder suspiciously whether this doesn’t say something about the genuineness of her shock and indignation.

Finally, it is apparently widely believed in the Army that Gen. Kennedy had her eye set on becoming the first woman named to a combat command. That would be one for the history books and might even have qualified her to be the first woman secretary of defense. The Army (and again I’m only repeating what the soldiers believe) refused, on the grounds that combat commanders must themselves have served in combat units, which of course women are not (yet) permitted to do–and it was this refusal that triggered Gen. Kennedy’s decision to retire early and in a way that inflicted maximum damage on her commanders. This story makes at least as much sense as the explanations of the political motives of Broaddrick and Jones. But now that Rule D is back in force, these questions will go not only unanswered but unasked.