THE Packwood story is proving to be a watershed for the issue of sexual misconduct in high places.
How the United States Senate has handled the charges against one of its own, say leaders of women's advocacy groups, shows an important change in attitude. And while the process of education on such matters has a long way to go, they add, more men now ``get it'' (to use the phrase coined during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings), and the increased number of women in Congress has made a big difference.
Mr. Packwood is the Republican senator from Oregon charged by more than two dozen former staff members and campaign workers with unwanted sexual advances. He is alleged to have intimidated some of those women when the charges - which were made over a period of more than two decades - first surfaced a year ago. He is also being investigated for illegally soliciting lobbyists to provide employment for his former wife. Both the Senate ethics committee and the Justice Department are probing the charges.
While lawmakers have had to be ``dragged kicking and screaming on the issue of sexual harassment and abuse of power, they are moving,'' says Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
``The club atmosphere of the Senate has a certain set of rules,'' Ms. Ireland says, ``but women and some of the men are now willing to break those rules.'' The bipartisan Senate ethics committee has doggedly pursued the Packwood charges, and the full Senate recently voted 94 to 6 to subpoena Packwood's diaries.
A key reason why, Ireland says, is that women in the Senate have been willing to speak out - despite concern over committee assignments and the possibility of offending their colleagues.
She cites Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a freshman Democrat who listened quietly to the debate over whether to subpoena the Packwood diaries before deciding she was the only one in the Senate with the background and perspective of millions of American women.
A former secretary herself, Senator Murray heard Packwood talk about dictating his thoughts on other senators' sex lives to a woman in his office, and she thought: ``How awful to be a secretary and sit there and have to take those notes.''
In a tough speech on the Senate floor, Murray told of being ``deeply disturbed'' hearing lawmakers in elevators and hallways express reluctance to pursue the charges against Packwood. A vote against the subpoena motion, she told them, would send a ``clear message to every woman in this country: If you are harassed, keep quiet, say nothing, the cards are stacked against you ever winning.
``I had worked for a year to earn the respect of my colleagues here, and I didn't want to have to take the risk of undoing that,'' she said. ``But I also knew that I had a responsibility to my own feelings and to the feelings I had heard in many places.''
``I was surprised afterward by the number of senators who came over to me and said `Thank you,' who said `You have made me realize how I'm going to vote on this and have brought me to the place where I know exactly what I have to do,' '' she said. Effect of more women in Senate
Asked whether having more women in the Senate had made a difference, Murray said: ``Absolutely. There's no doubt in my mind.''
Ireland says, ``Having more women in the Senate has made an immense difference on Packwood and on other issues.''
Mary Nolan, co-chairwoman of the grass-roots group Oregonians for Ethical Representation, finds the 94-to-6 subpoena vote in the Senate ``refreshing and encouraging.''
``The ethics committee has behaved very responsibly,'' she said. ``I'm actually quite proud of the way the Senate has handled it. They've very much respected the perspective and the testimony of the women who have stepped forward.''
While groups like Ms. Nolan's would like to see Packwood step down or be forced from office, the effort is seen as more than of just local interest. ``It may be Oregon's problem, but it's a national issue,'' says Betty Roberts, a retired Oregon Supreme Court justice active with the Women's Legal Advocacy Fund.
The fund was set up earlier this year to provide legal representation for Packwood's accusers during the Senate investigation. So far, the fund has about $6,500 - far less than the more than $280,000 Packwood has gathered for his defense.
Government records show that Packwood's money comes from business lobbyists, labor groups, and other political allies who have found him helpful in the past (in his role as ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, for example). Some Packwood donors have backed off
As accusations against the senator from Oregon have mounted, however, some donors have backed off. Last week, three top executives at Hallmark Cards expressed regret for the donations they had made to Packwood earlier this year. ``If I knew seven months ago what I know now, I definitely would not have made a contribution, nor would I have encouraged others to do so,'' said Rae Evans, Hallmark's vice president for national affairs.
Meeting over the weekend, NOW's board of directors voted to include a list of Packwood's corporate contributors in its next mailing to 250,000 members.
The idea is not to boycott those companies, Ireland said, but to pressure those donors to also contribute to the Women's Legal Advocacy Fund.
Packwood, meanwhile, last week replaced his chief defense counsel with a lawyer who has considerable experience representing clients before the Justice Department. Says Matt Evans, Packwood's spokesman: ``He's not going to resign. Period.''