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When You Make a Lasting Impression

By Stephanie Mencimer
Sunday, April 19, 1998; Page C01

"I thought, maybe I should just give him a good slap across the face. But then I thought, well, I don't think you can slap the president of the United States like that."
– Kathleen Willey, recalling her reaction to President Clinton's alleged advance

Once upon a time, the slap was a lady's traditional response to not being treated like a lady. The slap, though, seems to have gone the way of the virgin bride. Letitia Baldrige, Jackie Kennedy's social secretary and the author of several etiquette books, says "women slapping men for unwelcome sexual advances is really a bygone art. In the 19th century, women used to slap men daintily. It was a sign of ostracism." She remembers that the slap was in use well up through the 1930s. "Now, women don't think of it. The vocabulary -- and sometimes the lawsuit -- has replaced the slap."

That the slap is no longer part of a woman's arsenal is a tragedy. It has many admirable qualities to recommend it. The slap has such a lovely sound. Strong, immediate and universally understood, one quick flick of the wrist says in no uncertain terms, "How dare you!" The slap is outrage asserting itself. It's civilized, even haughty, and it conjures up images of Scarlett O'Hara wielding a distinctly feminine power.

Given the rise in sexual harassment allegations, it's time to resurrect the slap -- and the sense of shock that went with it. (Maybe if Bob Packwood had gotten a good slap in his office, he would still be in the U.S. Senate.) While women today are making ample use of the legal tools available to confront harassment, they frequently fail to use the most primitive weapons at their disposal.

The slap stings because it invokes an element of public shame that is often lacking in women's responses to inappropriate behavior -- including the lawsuit. Many of the most reprehensible sexual harassers never see the inside of the courtroom, nor do they lose their jobs. "Most good cases settle," said local civil rights attorney Lynne Bernabei. The settled suit is easily concealed, but slap a man when he pinches your behind near the copy machine and you've outed him. He won't forget it. And he's not likely to do it again. "It certainly humiliates the guy," said Baldrige. "If you slap the guy, it will absolutely resonate throughout the room."

Obviously, there are some good reasons the slap has gone out of style -- the main one being that some men hit back. The slap flourished in a dusty era when a woman who did not loudly rebuff unwanted sexual advances risked her reputation. Today, a woman who raises her hand risks her job.

The slap was also the reaction of a proper lady whose exposure to the male genitalia happened only after marriage. The sexual revolution removed the need for women to defend their virtue so aggressively. Today's sophisticated woman often worries more about seeming prudish than easy.

New-Age pop psychology further muddied the waters. The 1960s' idea that holding hands and hugging strangers was the key to world peace helped blur the distinction between proper and improper physical contact. That's part of the reason Willey says she did not recoil from Clinton's initial embrace: He's known as a hugger, and it is hardly fair to slap a guy for a bear hug.

There are other reasons why the slap has disappeared. For large numbers of women entering the workforce in the '60s, ignoring lurid sexual comments, gropes and gooses was a survival skill. Rather than imposing higher standards on men, women learned to talk dirty with the best of them. Judith Martin, the columnist known as Miss Manners, said women who wanted to succeed in the boys' club learned quickly: "If you can behave like a man and live the life of a man, you can be here as an honorary man." Boorish behavior once rewarded with a slap on the cheek is now met with a roll of the eyes from women who pretend they have seen it all.

The attitude trickles down. No longer do mothers instruct their daughters in the Victorian art of the slap. Instead, they teach that silence is dignified. When girls complain about boys snapping their bra straps on the school bus, how many mothers counsel, "Just ignore them, dear"?

This modern female gentility leaves sleazy male antics mostly unchecked. "People should react when they see this," said Martin, "and not wait for the law and courts to sort it out. If somebody grabs you, you scream!"

In fact, in abandoning the slap -- and the scream, and all of the vocabulary of outrage -- women have unilaterally disarmed.

Just assume, for the sake of argument, that Paula Corbin Jones has been telling a true story. She was summoned by a state trooper to a hotel room by the governor of Arkansas. He propositioned her, pulled his pants down and showed her his equipment. She was supposedly so horrified that, when outed by the trooper three years later, she filed a sexual harassment suit against Clinton.

Imagine, instead, that Jones had slapped Clinton and run from the room screaming, leaving the door wide open for passers-by to glimpse the governor in all his splendor. That one bold swipe would have elevated Jones from secretary to She-Ra, female avenger.

But alas, that's not what happened. The doormat ethic prevailed: Jones says she kept quiet, out of fear of losing her job, just as, two years later, Willey allegedly kept quiet while angling for a White House paycheck. And many people think their reactions were entirely sensible. "Being subtle is the rational thing to do," explained Bernabei. "That's what most women do."

But is it really rational to keep quiet? After all, it's the man who should fear unemployment. And, as Martin pointed out, "The law is easier to enforce when there is a reaction. If somebody does that kind of thing and you haul off and smack him and run out of the room screaming, it's a less accepting posture." To be sure, reviving the slap would place some of the responsibility for men's behavior squarely on women's shoulders. It's unfair -- not to mention discomforting -- but then, so is being harassed and walking away.

So let 'em have it. Be warned, though. If you're going to wind up, you'd better do it well first time. Baldrige suggests practicing in the mirror on yourself to get the feel for it. "It really is an art," she explained.

Stephanie Mencimer is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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