The Clinton sex scandals have revealed how women can turn eruptions of male libido to their advantage
June 19, 1998

The New York Times

19th March 1998

When the Washington Star folded in 1981, it was hard for me to find another job. Finally, I was offered a fine job at a magazine. One of its editors made the offer over dinner at a Washington hotel where he was staying. At the end of the dinner, as I got ready to leave, this nice, attractive and happily married editor looked at me and said, "Stay." The room reeled. I stammered something about meeting my boyfriend.

"Call him," the editor instructed, pushing a quarter across the table. Feeling dizzy, I explained that I couldn't reach him, thanked the editor and rushed out of the hotel. When I got out on to the street, I screamed. I was furious. I didn't know if I still had the job. Or what the job really entailed. I had come to him out of need, and he responded with an altogether different need of his own. I wanted to throw the job back in his face, but I knew I would not get another one that good. After agonising all weekend, I showed up for work on Monday. The editor was professional and encouraging. He later apologised.

When Anita Hill and Kathleen Willey came forward to tell their stories about sexual harassment, their critics said that these women were clearly lying, since they never would have stayed on pleasant terms with men who had acted so crudely. How could they have continued to work with, call, write nice notes to or ask favours of Clarence Thomas or Bill Clinton?

Easy. Just ask most working women. Ann Lewis, whose skirt Clinton is hiding behind, doesn't get it anymore. In 1991 she fought conservatives who said Anita Hill's credibility was undermined because she had followed Judge Thomas from job to job. Lewis lectured about the mind-set of working girls: "You have this prestigious and powerful boss and think you have to stay on the right side of him or for the rest of your working life he could nix another job."

Now Lewis, in her role as White House rationaliser, attacks Willey's credibility by saying that in 1996, three years after the groping incident in the Oval Office, the former volunteer said she admired Clinton and wanted to raise funds for his campaign.

Women cannot always stand on principle when the men in power over them stumble across the line. Women usually behave in more layered and self-interested ways. These painful nuances of emotion and calculation cannot be captured by the black and white of sexual harassment law-which can make women look hypocritical and manipulative.

Women are accustomed to putting up with immature and wormy behaviour by men in their personal lives, and in their professional lives. They have learned to use their wiles and wits to manoeuvre past eruptions of male libido.

Sceptics wonder why Hill and Willey filed no complaints against their tormentors. But if women took action every time a boss made an unwanted pass or an untoward remark, they would be twice injured: first when they are treated like chattel, and again when they lose their bridge to a good job. In learning to sidestep the importunings of men, women have also learned to turn them to their advantage.

Anita Hill and Kathleen Willey were prepared to extract the good from the bad, and make their bosses' libido work for them. It's a way of getting ahead in a world dominated by powerful men. But self-interest, too, has its limits. A woman who is willing to be teased may not be prepared to be degraded. She may tolerate a boss's gaze but not his hands. So, bosses beware. Some prices are too much to pay. When the line is crossed, some women may not only collapse into tears. They may also collapse into television studios.