Don't Out Cain's Accusers

Conservatives are calling for Herman Cain's harassment accusers to come forward. But Michelle Goldberg says their anonymity shouldn't be compromised just because he's running for president.

11.05.11 5:45 PM ET

It’s probably only a matter of time before the women who accused Herman Cain of sexual harassment in the 1990s are outed. Already, the conservative media is braying for their names and setting up justifications for identifying them. “See, a little bird told Politico that something scandalous happened a while back, but they’re not going to tell us who said so or even what exactly is supposed to have happened,” wrote The Daily Caller’s Jim Treacher on Friday. “If you didn’t know better, you’d think they were indulging in the lowest sort of rumormongering while hiding behind a tissue-thin veil of journalistic integrity.”

On Friday afternoon, one of the women, still remaining anonymous, issued a statement through her lawyer, Joel Bennett. According to Politico, it was approved by the National Restaurant Association, though her non-disclosure agreement remained in place. While citing a “series of inappropriate behaviors and unwanted advances,” it provided no further details, and pleaded for privacy. “She and her husband see no value in revisiting this matter now, nor in discussing this matter further, publicly or privately,” it says. “In fact it would be extremely painful to do so. She is grateful that she was able to return to her government career, where she is extremely happy serving the American people to the best of her ability.”

All of the women are probably terrified. Unlike Anita Hill, they haven’t made a choice to become involved in a big national political battle. When they made their charges, and, in two cases, their settlements with the National Restaurant Association, there’s no way they could have imagined that their boss would one day be a leading presidential candidate. If they are outed now, it sends a message to all women—when you complain of harassment, your confidentiality is conditioned on the future career of your alleged harasser.

The evaluation of these women’s characters has already begun. In a piece headlined “News Organizations Continue to Protect Identities of Cain’s Accusers,” The Daily Caller’s Matthew Boyle speaks to Richard Pollock, a reporter for the conservative PJ Media, who claims to know who one of the women is and to trust her account. “Pollock said he’s not sure who the other two women are, but he thinks conservatives and Cain supporters should believe the story because, among other reasons, ‘both people who spoke [to Pollock] were conservative and one of them is a Christian evangelical,’” Boyle wrote. It’s certainly a good thing that Pollock is protecting this woman’s identity, but the implication is that her religion and her voting record are keys to her credibility.

Once the women’s names emerge, it’s likely to be open season on them—their sexual histories, their politics, their competence, and their finances. Already, many conservatives have declared that all sexual-harassment cases are con jobs. “Is there anyone who thinks sexual harassment is a real thing?” asks The National Review’s John Derbyshire. “Is there anyone who doesn’t know it’s all a lawyers’ ramp, like ‘racial discrimination?’ You pay a girl a compliment nowadays, she runs off and gets lawyered up.” (Derbyshire is a sort of camp version of a reactionary creep; he’s famous for saying that the only women worth seeing naked are those under 20.) “We have seen this movie before and we know how it ends,” declared conservative radio host Laura Ingraham. “It always ends up being an employee who can’t perform or who under-performs and is looking for a little green.”

And so these women are likely bracing for their lives to be blown apart. During the Clarence Thomas hearings, Anita Hill described coming home to an “answering machine full of messages, some worse than I had anticipated—death threats and threats of rape or sodomy.” In the epilogue to her 1997 book Speaking Truth to Power, she wrote, “My life has been forever changed. I will never again feel as safe and secure as I did before I received the first threats on my life.” Hill’s ordeal was before Fox News, before the reputational meat grinder of the Internet. If the women in the Cain case decide to come forward, they will deserve credit for their bravery, but to force them into the spotlight would be yet another violation.