In Congress, sexual shenanigans are the best-kept nonsecret around-a topic of continuing speculation and gossip, but one of the great unmentionables when it comes to serious political debate or re-election campaigns. That is probably because politics has always been a malls game, and men-particularly men in public life-generally do not talk about their conquests. But all that may be changing, partly because of the significant increase in the number of women who won election to the House and Senate this year, and partly because of the outrage over the treatment of Anita Hill. Hill's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee made sexual harassment a front-page issue nationwide. And it now seems to be triggering a delayed reaction from women, who claim to have long been sexual targets for the men who run Capitol Hill.
Consider the allegations against Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon. Packwood, who just won re-election to a fifth term, is a moderate Republican and a recognized stalwart on women's political issues. But according to a lengthy story in The Washington Post last week, Packwood is also a man who has a long history of making unwanted sexual advances to women employees. The Post story, which appeared only 19 days after Packwood narrowly survived a tough race against Democratic Rep. Les AuCoin, provides anecdotal accounts from seven former staffers and one lobbyist, for NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League. These women say the senator grabbed, kissed or propositioned them without warning and without encouragement on their part. The alleged incidents, according to the Post, occurred as early as 1969 and as recently as 1990, though none of the women had reported Packwood's behavior. "When I watched the Anita Hill hearings, and she wasn't believed, I just had this tremendous sense of anger and abandonment which was really old hurts of my own," said Jean McMahon, a former staffer who says she was sexually harassed by Packwood in the mid-1970s.
Packwood, who was interviewed several times for the Post story, at first denied improper behavior and later tried to cast doubt on the credibility of some of the women who had accused him. But confronted with the names and statements of six different women, he issued an apology disclaiming any intent "to pressure, to offend [or] make anyone feel uncomfortable." A spokesman said Packwood had not admitted any wrongdoing, but Packwood said he would seek professional help to see if his alleged behavior was related to his use of alcohol. Women's rights activists in Oregon nonetheless called for Packwood's resignation. And the Post's executive editor, Leonard Downie, said the timing of the story's publication was dictated by the need for careful reporting rather than any intent to protect Packwood.
But the real issues run much deeper than the political survival of one incumbent senator. "This is not just an isolated incident," says Kate Michelman, executive director of NARAL. "I am not suggesting that all men in Congress engage in sexist behavior, but I would say it is not unusual." Indeed, similar allegations forced Sen. Brock Adams of Washington to retire from polities this year, and a woman claims Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii committed acts of sexual harassment as well. (Inouye denies it.) The real issue, Michelman says, "is the arrogance of power combined with sexist attitudes towards women."
This leads Michelman and many other women's political activists to demand a revolution on Capitol Hill. The crucial question is whether Congress, which has historically exempted itself from laws against employment discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, will accept the same rules and regulations that govern the rest of the federal government and many private employers as well. Change, though slow in coming, is likely to accelerate when the 103rd Congress convenes in January. Senators-elect Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington will push for tougher policies on sexual harassment in the Senate, and newly elected legislators like Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio have similar hopes for the House. But no one thinks the locker-room mentality will vanish overnight. In 1990, 260 House members and 58 senators signed a voluntary policy on sexual harassment-and Bob Packwood was one of them.