JOHN MACK's departure from the pinnacle of government power carries with it a potent message for women: Violence against them is beginning to be taken more seriously. A violent criminal who almost murders a woman cannot walk away from the act, serve a short sentence in a cushy county jail, and emerge to rise quickly to the top of government ranks. It's a long-overdue signal. But it is welcomed nonetheless as a beacon for public opinion.
Obviously the primary motivation behind Mr. Mack's quick exit was to clear Speaker Jim Wright of yet another ethical cloud. But the secondary message should not go unnoticed.
Experts don't know whether violence against women is on the rise. Perhaps heightened publicity about the issue has yanked more victims out of the closet and onto the statistical rosters. But this crime wave has become a source of morbid fascination for the American public. And the statistics are astounding.
The FBI reports that a woman is raped in America every six minutes. And if that fails to jolt you out of your chair, then consider that one woman in 10 will be raped in her lifetime. Precious little is being done about this crisis, but Mack's fall from power is a start.
The Washington Post published the first interview with the victim of Mack's crime in which she allowed her name to be used. Sixteen years ago, Pamela Small entered a suburban furniture store. Mack, then the store clerk, lured her into a back room, bludgeoned her with a hammer, and slashed her throat and chest with a knife. He left her for dead.
His brother, then married to Mr. Wright's daughter, helped arrange a job for Mack with the Speaker. As a result, Mack was granted parole after serving only 27 months in jail. He joined the Speaker's staff as a mail clerk, worked hard for years, and rose to become his chief aide.
A truly rehabilitated felon is a rare commodity. Mack, for that, is to be commended. But rewarded? In a city where imagery is paramount, that sends the wrong signal to women about the severity with which Mack's act is viewed.
Ms. Small believes he was rewarded. Ironically, she says, if he'd never attacked her, he would not have been given a job with then-Congressman Wright. The message before his resignation was that a heinous act of supreme brutality against a woman could be tolerated by top government officials. The message after his resignation is that it will not be. Republican Rep. Jan Meyers of Kansas says many of the women in Congress were ``appalled and angry.'' She called his resignation ``appropriate.''
Another crime of perverse violence against a woman has also captivated the nation of late. Anyone who has not just emerged from a long hibernation has heard of the Central Park rape. A jogger was savaged and beaten by a gang of six teen-age boys. Most accounts of the crime center on the fact that she is white and they are black or Hispanic. But more important, she is female and they are male. Friends of the accused have suggested in news accounts that rape is one way for young men to prove their manhood. Again, the message is that violence against women is not taken seriously.
Both of these stories surfaced simultaneously with a report on gender bias in the state court system. A two-year study of the Maryland courts by a team of judges and lawyers concluded that sex bias against women is pervasive. For example, the study found that women who complain about domestic violence in court are accused of lying. They are treated as if their cases are trivial and unimportant. And they are blamed for allowing themselves to be beaten. Should anyone believe that such bias is limited to Maryland, the NOW Legal Defense Fund sets them straight.
NOW's director of judicial education, Lynn Hecht Schafran, says the Maryland study is one of 27 in various stages of development, and adds that ``the problems are exactly the same from state to state.'' The New York State task force, for example, found gender bias against women litigants, lawyers, and court employees at all levels. Once again the message is clear: Violence against women is not taken seriously, even in the last refuge for justice, the courts.
That is why Mack's departure is so important. It is the first signal on a national scale that aggressors who victimize women will be punished. And it shows that congressional leaders believe violence against women must end.
It is too bad that it had to come at the expense of a man who had worked hard to rehabilitate himself. And at the expense of his family. But violence against women won't subside unless public attitudes change. And public attitudes won't change unless the issue is repeatedly highlighted, and the aggressor comes to understand the severity of his act.