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Monica Lewinsky
Monica Lewinsky arrives at courthouse Thursday. (Reuters)

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Key Constituency Reverses Itself

By Barbara Vobejda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 1998; Page A08

A critical constituency for President Clinton – liberal women's groups and Democratic women on Capitol Hill – found itself in an awkward position this week, struggling to condemn the president's behavior without condemning the man.

In the days since Clinton admitted having a sexual relationship with former intern Monica S. Lewinsky, Democratic women in Congress have, one after another, used harsh words to criticize the president and are clearly angry with him.

"I am saddened and disappointed," said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.).

"I am very disappointed. . . . It was wrong," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.).

"Clearly, he was wrong," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said shortly after the president's Monday speech that "my trust in his credibility has been badly shattered." Feinstein later said she was especially upset with Clinton because she had been in the Roosevelt Room with him the day last January when he went on television to deny his affair with "that woman."

But no Democratic woman in Congress has called for the president to resign. And most of those who issued statements have added quickly that they hoped the investigation would end soon and the country would move on to other issues.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), who until this week had said she would withhold judgment, called the relationship "inappropriate and irresponsible. . . . However, this matter has distracted us for too long from the important issues facing the American people."

More than at any other time since the scandal broke seven months ago, women's leaders are being forced to take a stand. If until now they could stand behind Clinton's denials of an affair, or say they did not know if it was true, now, they had to react. And the early signs this week are that, for the time being they have decided to maintain their political support for the president, even as they separate themselves from him morally.

But whatever their public statements, many elected women on Capitol Hill feel betrayed, their aides said.

"It definitely puts women in a bad situation," said a female congressional staffer. "How can we defend him? On the other hand, we don't want to come out strongly against him."

Feminist organizations, which have been wrestling internally for months over how to react to the presidential scandal, also have maintained their support, citing the difference between sexual harassment and what was apparently consensual sex between the president and Lewinsky.

"Consensual sex with a White House intern is an abuse of power by the president, but consensual sex is not illegal harassment and it is not an impeachable offense," National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland said earlier this week. "Nor is it in the best interest of our country for the president to resign."

This stance has unleashed a new round of criticism from conservatives, who for months have accused liberal women's organizations of hypocrisy, saying they were quick to condemn Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and then-Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) when they were accused of sexual harassment.

"It puts the final nail in the coffin of their credibility," said Anita Blair, executive vice president and general counsel for the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative group.

If a Republican leader were accused of the same misdeeds, Blair said, feminist organizations "would have been marching, raising money, screaming on TV. But because it was a powerful man who could do good for them, they kept their silence."

Kathy Spillar, national coordinator of the Feminist Majority Foundation, a liberal group, said conservatives "are deliberately trying to confuse these situations. Bob Packwood and Clarence Thomas were accused of sexual harassment. That is very different than a sexual affair."

She cited continuing strong support for Clinton among women, even after his speech Monday admitting the affair. A Los Angeles Times poll conducted Tuesday and Wednesday found that women were more likely to have a favorable impression of Clinton and to say he has the integrity and honesty they expect in a president. While 56 percent of men in the poll approved of Clinton's performance in his job, the figure was 68 percent among women.

"Women are saying they believe this is a private matter between the president and his wife," Spillar said. "This president has done a very good job for women," she said, pointing to his support for abortion rights and his appointment of many women in positions of power. "Women have said they'll stick with him."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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