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Allegations Pose Agony for Women's Groups

By Terry M. Neal and Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 30, 1998; Page A17

National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland called together her staff this week to discuss allegations that President Clinton had an affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and later encouraged her to lie about it under oath.

There was consensus that "we wanted to put out a clear statement of our belief that it would be a gross misuse of power for the president of the United States to have a sexual relationship with a White House employee or an intern," Ireland said.

The NOW staff agreed to press White House officials, including Clinton, to sign a pledge "to reject sexually intimate relations with employees and volunteers." NOW considered having the group's interns march to the White House brandishing copies of the pledge. But that was rejected, Ireland said, because it would suggest "we were taking a side, attacking Clinton, as opposed to making a general statement." Instead, NOW decided to circulate the pledge among White House and congressional officials.

Feminist organizations have agonized over the role they should play in the burgeoning scandal enveloping Clinton, whom many consider to be among the most supportive politicians in the history of the women's rights movement.

Equally as conflicted are the many women, mostly Democrats, elected to Congress in the last decade, who have used their growing clout to focus attention on issues important to women. Some of those elected women led the charge to force public debates on sexual harassment allegations against Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) and Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Since the allegations about Clinton became public, many of those women have assiduously avoided reporters, given clipped "no comment" answers or offered vague statements that neither support nor criticize the president. Several women in Congress refused to be interviewed for this article.

Liberal-leaning Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) has been among the few to make an unqualified statement either way: "The president made a definitive statement," she said of Clinton's denial. "I believe him."

Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the bipartisan National Women's Political Caucus, said, "This is a two-edged sword for us." While members are "real disappointed . . . Clinton has promoted more programs for women" than any other president.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who ran for office in 1992, in part, out of outrage over the Senate's handling of Thomas's confirmation hearing, said she was reserving judgment on Clinton. In 1995, Murray was among the most vocal senators urging public hearings into sexual misconduct allegations against Packwood. "I really believe our highest elected officials should set the standard for the nation," she said at the time.

Murray rejected any notion that she and other women jumped to early conclusions about Packwood's case or that now they are protecting Clinton. Rather, she said, the role she and other women played during the Packwood episode was to ensure that the male-dominated Senate would thoroughly investigate the charges.

With Packwood, as with Thomas, the problem was that the women who made the allegations "had been pushed aside as noncredible and dismissed," Murray said. No such pressure is needed in the Clinton case because there is a forum, the judicial system, to deal with Lewinsky's allegations.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who was outspoken on the Thomas and Packwood controversies, echoed Murray's statements: "What is important for the American people to know is that there is a process in place to deal with these allegations."

Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, a vocal critic of the Senate's handling of the Packwood and Thomas hearings, said through a spokesman about Clinton: "At a time when there are so many rumors and innuendos flying around, it would be inappropriate to make a comment."

Critics see the cautious approach as evidence that many Democrats and feminists are willing to suspend their outrage over such issues when it is politically convenient. Conservative leaders, male and female, made the same charge when feminist groups failed to speak in support of Paula Jones's lawsuit against Clinton.

Ann Coulter, a conservative journalist, said in a debate with Ireland on CNN yesterday: "Usually, it's feminist groups are jumping in when it's just saying 'honey' or just using speech. This is something completely different. I mean, this is moral turpitude."

"The sounds of silence emanating from the women's groups is pretty stunning," said Republican pollster Linda DiVall. "I haven't heard a great rush to endorse or support him either. But it seems to me that the feminists were very quick off the mark going after Bob Packwood and Clarence Thomas."

But Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said the cautious reaction of feminist leaders mirrors that of women voters. Polls suggest that women are more likely to reserve their opinions, while men are more harshly judging Clinton.

"Number one, these allegations have not been proven," Lake said. "Secondly, there was a feeling that Thomas and Packwood violated their public roles, and there's no evidence that Clinton did that."

Complicating the issue for some women's rights advocates is that Clinton, unlike Packwood and Thomas, has not been accused of sexual harassment in the Lewinsky case. Some acknowledge, however, that one by-product of the heightened, politically sensitive environment they helped create is that relationships between powerful superiors and subordinates are now commonly seen as coercive even when there is no specific allegation of harassment.

"No leader is saying the [Lewinsky allegations] are not serious," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. "We're simply saying we're not rushing to judgment." said

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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