Is the open season on women over?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE CASE of Bob Packwood, Oregon's quixotic Republican Senator, is destined to be a historic episode in the reform of relations between men and women. It is already an exemplar of the United States Senate's readiness to take seriously women's protest against men's abuse of their persons and privacy.

Whatever the outcome of the case being brought by 25 of Senator Packwood's colleagues, who allege sexual harassment and intimidation, a man's constitutional right to privacy is no longer sufficient to withstand a woman's charge that a Senator has transgressed the privacy of her person.

That was the significance of last week's remarkable scene in the Senate when Packwood's peers voted by 94 to six to support its ethics committee's right to subpoena Packwood's diaries as part of its investigation into the sexual harassment charges.

But the way in which public opinion regards the Packwood case contains two distinct narratives: it is typically described both as the 'privacy case' and as 'sexual harassment by that boor'. A man's right to the privilege of privacy and a man's right to behave boorishly are being equally contested in public debate.

The defenders of Packwood's privacy have been confounded by the man's decision to offer highlights from his 8,000-page diaries to the ethics committee. This tactic trapped the Senator. Once the ethics committee had read 5,000 pages, it was alerted to possible criminal violations by Packwood and wanted to read the rest.

The notion that a man's diary is the doorway to the secrets of his soul was also jeopardised by another fact: a secretary had typed the text. Is a secretary, like a servant, an un-person?

Although the Packwood case is still being dubbed a privacy case, the argument is over. The Senate has often enough demanded sight of the private papers of public officials and politicians when a matter of political probity is at stake. What is remarkable about the Packwood case is that sexual manners are being judged as part of the etiquette of public life in a new way.

The old feminist mantra, 'the personal is political', is being institutionalised. In the US, unlike the UK, the institutional - rather than the informal - codification of propriety is the subject of intense scrutiny. The boundaries between public and private, or between the personal and the political, are no longer sanctified. Institutions are the places where public and private meet and become blurred. For it is in the public places that people live much of their personal lives.

Great public institutions have often been the places where men manage their concubines, where their open secrets have been supported and protected by the admiration of their colleagues. It was that congenial collegiality which protected Packwood for more than 20 years.

That renowned collegiality, however, must now apparently incorporate the experience of women. The boundary map is being redrawn as women take their complaints to their peers - these same men whose silence has provided sanctuary for politicians like Packwood.

That complicity is palpable in the public defence of Packwood. Whatever he had been doing,he had been doing it for years. The Wall Street Journal commented last week that most of his boorish behaviour had happened more than a dozen years ago. The progressive New York paper, Newsday, replied: 'Just when was there an open season against women and just when did it end?'

Newsday, like all of us, knows the answer. It always was open season against women - sexual harassment has always been a perk. There have always been men who didn't do it and didn't like it. Why weren't they the whistle-blowers?

Women have to do what these men couldn't contemplate - reveal their humiliation through their dissent. The institutions are not confronting something new, they are interpreting men's power through the filter of women's pain.

This case represents a historic transition: behaviour that was sanctioned - indeed expected and sometimes celebrated - is now seen as scandalous. The shift is an index of women's intrusion into men's sanctuary.

There are only seven women in the US Senate. Yet they and the women's movement have given the men an opportunity they could not take for themselves - the majority of the men in the Senate have taken the side of the women in their challenge to one of the perks of power.

What made them do it? Shame? The first charge of sexual harassment was lodged against Packwood a year ago, after his election for a fifth term. The Senate was at that time living with collective shame for the humiliation of Professor Anita Hill when she brought her charge of sexual harassment against the appointment of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

Anita Hill's legacy lives on. You see car stickers that say: 'I believe you, Anita'. She was perceived as a victim of the political process even though not of his harassment.

Perhaps she triumphed in her defeat. The Senate knew it had done her wrong. Her victimisation was the source of its shame - because senators could not escape from the knowledge that they had sanctioned it. But the collective shout of 25 women so soon after that provided the Senate with the opportunity to do the right thing and distance itself from what its own culture has sustained. That collective shout made the difference between what the Senate sanctions and what it deems a scandal.

Beatrix Campbell is speaking at the 'Independent on Sunday'/IPPR conference on Families, Children and Crime tomorrow at the Royal Society of Arts, London WC2.

Comments