Sharon Bialek, who publicly accused Herman Cain of harassment Monday, was fired from her job and waited years to come forward. But her story is all too familiar to many women, says Michelle Goldberg.
By the end of Sharon Bialek’s press conference at Manhattan’s Friars Club on Monday, you could already see the case against her taking shape.
In many ways, Bialek is exactly the kind of accuser who could damage Herman Cain the most—an attractive blonde Republican, a mom who attends Tea Party events. But as the questions put forward Monday suggest, she also has vulnerabilities. She was fired from her job in 1997. For the past two years she’s been a “full-time single mom,” and her lawyer, Gloria Allred, refused to say how Bialek supports herself. Journalists asked her why she had failed to report Cain to the National Restaurant Association, and why she’d waited so long to come forward. Besides, hadn’t she known something was up when a coffee meeting turned into drinks and dinner?
After the conference, I saw the right-wing talk-radio host Mark Simone in the lobby. “You didn’t actually believe any of that, did you?” he asked, smirking. I said it sounded plausible to me. He gave a condescending laugh and said it was a good thing that I don’t work for the police department. “Stick to The Daily Beast,” he said.
I have no way of knowing, obviously, whether Bialek was telling the truth. None of us does. But there’s nothing unusual about a woman seeking professional help from a powerful older man and getting sexual advances instead. More than that, it’s often hard to tell, at least initially, whether a man is offering mentorship or lechery. This is one of the difficult things about being a woman in a male-dominated workplace. Career progress often depends on relationships, and on people higher up taking a friendly interest in you. When you have a chance to have drinks or dinner with someone you look up to, it’s not always easy to figure out whether it’s an opportunity or a trap.
As Bialek tells it, she had reason to believe that Cain’s interest in her was avuncular; after all, when she worked as a manager at the Educational Foundation, part of the National Restaurant Association, she’d socialized with him along with her boyfriend. Indeed, it was the boyfriend who suggested that she seek Cain out after losing her job, as he had always been so friendly to her.
Bialek said that when Cain hit on her—or, perhaps, assaulted her—she thought they were en route to the National Restaurant Association offices. “He parked the car down the block,” she said. “I was wearing a black pleated skirt, a blouse, and a suit jacket. He had on a suit jacket without a tie. Instead of going in, he suddenly reached over and put his hand on my leg, under my skirt, and reached for my genitals. He also grabbed my head and brought it towards his crotch. I was surprised and shocked, and I said, ‘What are you doing? You know I have a boyfriend. This is not what I came here for.’” Cain, she says, replied, “You want a job, right?”
This story is wearingly familiar. Most women I know have experienced something similar, though rarely so crude. For me, it was the professor who I thought admired my writing until he propositioned me. Friends have told me about a foreign-policy pro who is infamous for coming on to young women who need jobs. Despite the myths on the right about hordes of humorless and litigious harpies eager to turn every dirty joke into a payday, women tend to shrug these things off, especially when there’s no violence or retaliation. No one wants to spend her life in court, and besides, in cases like the one Bialek described, it’s not even clear that Cain’s actions were illegal, as she no longer worked for him. He wasn’t running for president. She didn’t know if he’d done the same thing to anyone else, or if anyone would believe her. Before Cain’s poll numbers started soaring and reports of other women started circulating, it would have been surprising if she had gone public.
In other words, while I don’t know whether Bialek’s story is true, I do know that it rings true. It makes sense that she didn’t report Cain or come forward until now. According to two affidavits that Allred read at the press conference, she did what most women do: confide in people close to her, in her case her boyfriend and a friend, and move on. She had nothing to gain and much to lose from doing otherwise, and men who do what Cain is accused of doing count on that.