In Jones-Clinton Case, Silence of the Sisterhood Stirs Charges of Hypocrisy
By Kevin Merida
In early 1994, Arkansas attorney Daniel Traylor was trying to develop a legal case for Paula Corbin Jones, who had publicly accused President Clinton of sexual misconduct. He contacted women's groups for help.
"I got little or no encouragement from any of them," said Traylor, who no longer represents Jones, the former Arkansas clerical worker who filed her sexual harassment suit on May 6, 1994.
Now, the relative silence of national women's organizations in the Jones-Clinton episode has reopened a debate about whether partisan politics has clouded the judgments of women's organizations. The new round of sparring between conservative supporters of Jones and feminist leaders comes as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday on whether a president should have the right to postpone a civil trial until after he leaves office.
Jones's attorneys have accused women's rights advocates of hypocrisy for not joining their client's case, though they quickly jumped to the rescue of Anita F. Hill after she publicly accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, a conservative, of sexual harassment.
"Where are the women's groups?" asked Jones's attorney Joseph Cammarata. When told that some women have said that they had not been given access to Jones or asked to do anything specifically, Cammarata replied: "They don't need our permission to speak out on an issue. To say they need an invitation is absurd. Well, they've got an invitation. Come on in."
Women's groups often file "friend of the court" briefs in cases involving sexual harassment, discrimination and abortion. But no groups have signed on to Jones's case, either because the cases are different, they say, or because conservatives have tainted Jones's case by making a political issue out of it.
"This is a tough call for women's groups," said Nancy Long, president of the Women's Bar Association of Washington, D.C., "because there's always going to be the question of credibility. She's up against the president of the United States." Long, however, said the Jones case will be raised at the organization's board meeting this month.
In 1991, women's organizations rallied behind law professor Hill, saying she had a right to be heard before the Senate passed judgment on Thomas's fitness to serve on the Supreme Court. In Jones's case, they say, she is already guaranteed a hearing because her case is in the legal system. The question is not whether she will be heard, but when.
One of Hill's cheerleaders was Judith L. Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund. Until now, she has been relatively quiet on the Jones matter. But in a statement yesterday, she argued that allowing the case to proceed while Clinton is still in office "would be damaging to the office of the presidency and to the country."
"Serious issues have been raised," Lichtman said, "and the legal process has been working in this case. Paula Jones will have her day in court with all the due process protections that Anita Hill never had."
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, was more combative. "What I can't get over is her attorneys, the weekend before they're going to the Supreme Court, taking the time to attack the feminist movement," she said. Smeal said it seemed like Jones's conservative supporters were using her case to score political points starting with the forum in which Jones unveiled her allegations on Feb. 11, 1994: a conference in Washington of the Conservative Political Action Committee.
Some of Jones's supporters, however, think feminist leaders would be all over this case if it involved a Republican president. Asked if that were true, Smeal said: "I don't know. I will tell you we did come out against Packwood. And that was hard for us."
Then-Sen. Bob Packwood, accused by several women of making unwelcome sexual advances, had been a friend of the women's movement for more than 20 years, introducing the first abortion rights legislation in 1970. But within days of the accusations being reported in The Washington Post, several national women's organizations called for a Senate inquiry. Three weeks later, the National Organization for Women called for his resignation. The Oregon Republican resigned from the Senate on Oct. 1, 1995.
Ironically, NOW was one of the first groups Jones's attorney contacted after efforts to publicize her allegations at a conference of conservatives became a public relations disaster. According to Traylor, he sent NOW a packet of information that included affidavits from friends supporting Jones's claim that she had told them about her alleged encounter with Clinton on May 8, 1991, when she says she was summoned to then-Gov. Clinton's Little Rock hotel room and asked to perform a sexual act. The president has denied the charges.
The packet of information to NOW was accompanied "with a request that they try to find me some help," said Traylor. Patricia Ireland, president of NOW, said she eventually was put in touch with Traylor just two days before the deadline for filing suit was to expire.
Ireland sat in on a call with Traylor and said she was led to believe that Jones would participate in it as well. But once on the phone, Ireland was told that Jones had gone shopping for a dress. "It just didn't compute," said Ireland, who added that Traylor never asked for help. Ireland said she offered to fly to Long Beach, Calif., where Jones now lives, to hear her story first hand an offer that stands. "NOW will not rally public support for her until NOW leaders have the kind of information they have had in similar cases," Ireland said.
Traylor said that he never promised that Jones would be in on the conference call. "What we wanted was self-evident," said Traylor, citing financial aid and legal research.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company