Clinton's role in heightening sexual-harassment debate

Women's rights activists and legal experts divided on scandal impact.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Never before has the chief executive of the United States been so deeply and personally embroiled in the issue of sexual misconduct in the workplace.

On matters of policy - apart from his personal behavior - Bill Clinton receives high marks from women's rights groups and women in general. Mr. Clinton has done more than perhaps any other president to advance the causes of American women.

But in the wake of the year-long scandal involving Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones, Clinton's legacy in the area of sexual-harassment law remains an open question.

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Will the scandal help eliminate illegal gender discrimination by demonstrating to the nation the necessity for such laws? Or will the president's Houdini-like political survival suggest to would-be harassers (and their potential victims) that if a man is powerful enough and hires the right lawyers he can get away with almost anything?

Not since the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 have Americans been so starkly confronted with the issue. Women's rights activists and other legal experts, however, are divided on the impact of the scandal.

Some say it will discourage women from believing that the law can protect them. Others say it will have the exact opposite effect, provoking women to fight even harder to establish their rights in the workplace.

Many analysts are torn between the president's good points and his bad points. "On one hand you can say if you are interested in the overall equality of women as a group you have to say 'I would take Bill Clinton,' " says Nancy Dowd, a law professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "But his conduct has been so demeaning that he has set women back enormously."

Although Clinton settled the Jones lawsuit and avoided being thrown out of office, he still faces the possibility of being fined by a federal judge for being less than truthful under oath in the Jones case. In addition, he could be prosecuted by the independent counsel's office on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

ONLY the Jones aspect of the scandal relates directly to alleged sexual harassment by the president. But women's rights experts say they are also troubled by aspects of the Lewinsky matter, including alleged attempts by the White House to undermine Ms. Lewinsky's credibility when it appeared she might tell the truth about her relationship with Clinton. It's the same tactic most women face when they file a sexual-harassment suit.

"Usually in high profile he-said, she-said cases, she loses. And he was lying," says Jane Aiken, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

Ms. Aiken says one positive outcome of the Clinton- Lewinsky scandal will be that jurors in future sexual- harassment cases will remember Lewinsky and be much more suspicious of male defendants who attack the credibility of a female plaintiff.

One major negative influence from the scandal, analysts say, flows from the White House insistence that the Lewinsky affair was merely a private matter between consenting adults. That view runs counter to the emerging consensus across corporate America that it is highly inappropriate for the boss to have - or even consider - a sexual relationship with any employee.

"His conduct is what is problematic from the standpoint of sexual-harassment law," says Elizabeth Schneider, a law professor at Brooklyn University. "The tendency to see this as just a minor issue and to say it is not really a public matter, it can have an inadvertently negative consequence in terms of trivializing sexual harassment."

Some analysts view the scandal as having been the ultimate test of the power of the law versus a powerful man.

"We, as a country, had the opportunity to come forward and make a statement that no matter what office you hold or what job you have you cannot sexually harass women and get away with it. Bill Clinton got away with it," says Linda Hitt Thatcher, a Landover, Md., lawyer who specializes in sexual-harassment cases.

Others see a more positive outcome. In every instance of a high profile sexual-harassment case, even when the end result was not favorable to women, the cause of women's rights benefited, says Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center in Washington. "People saw the handling of Anita Hill as a set back. But the public attention and debate around the issue sparked women to file more complaints and move toward eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace. So it did have a positive effect."

After Clarence Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, Congress amended federal law to allow for punitive damages in sexual-harassment cases. It helped encourage reluctant women to file lawsuits. By 1994, the number of sexual-harassment suits filed each year had doubled to more than 14,400. But in more recent years, the number of suits filed each year have remained relatively constant between 15,300 and 15,800.

"It may be that we are in the middle of a public relations effect from this whole Paula Jones stuff," says Aiken.

Some analysts say the leveling off of the statistics may be a reflection that employers are doing a better job policing sexual harassment, particularly in light of a 1998 Supreme Court decision requiring companies to create and implement workplace policies to eliminate sexual harassment.

"Maybe this is an indication that the education process now has been completed," says Elaine Herskowitz, a lawyer at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington. "It could be that harassment is decreasing."

Others aren't so sure.

"We still continue to see only the tip of the iceberg of sexual-harassment activity being litigated now," says Ms. Dowd.

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