This could be the woman who turns the feminists against Bill Clinton

The taboo against sexual predation in Nineties America has given women new power, says Mary Dejevsky. But will it be used for good or ill?
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THIS is the double-handed drama that 25 years of fractious American feminism and an unlearning male establishment have scripted. She says she went to his office as a desperate petitioner and he abused his power by trying to kiss and grope. He says she was agitated and needed comfort: he placed an arm around her shoulder, a peck on her forehead maybe, but nothing that could have been misconstrued.

They might have been an aspiring starlet and a Hollywood director, a college student and her professor; a secretary and her boss, an army recruit and her drillmaster. But they happened to be a voluntary worker in distress and the President of the United States. And the scene was not some book- lined study or sordid mess room, but a corridor off the Oval Office, hallowed scene of summit meetings and state broadcasts.

The allegations are shocking, of course, but not beyond belief. Bill Clinton's "zipper problem" has always loomed in the background of his presidency. Thanks partly to Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas eight years ago - she said he had made crude advances to her at work and did not qualify to be a Supreme Court judge; he said he hadn't, and did (and won his confirmation in the Senate) - relations between the sexes in America have become the most tense and litigious in the world. The combination was a White House scandal waiting to happen.

As yet, the truth of the Willey-Clinton encounter is elusive. Is it to be found in Kathleen Willey's sad and seemingly reluctant accusations or in Bill Clinton's sad and adamant denials - who knows? But something has changed. Ms Willey's personal credibility as a victim and the banality of her story threaten a crucial pillar of Mr Clinton's political support: the women whose votes won him power five and a half years ago.

Until Ms Willey's television interview on Sunday night, opinion polls showed women standing loyally behind "their" President. When the sex scandal before last broke upon the world eight weeks ago - tape-recorded confessions by a former White House trainee, Monica Lewinsky, of an 18-month affair with Mr Clinton - women were dismissive, or indulgent. Mainstream women's groups withheld judgement: in part because they genuinely feared drawing the wrong conclusion; in part to mask the discord that raged in their ranks.

There was surprise and not a little (male) scorn at this non-reaction. How could free-thinking American women, who let pass no opportunity to damn a man for the slightest flirtation with a junior female colleague, relax their rules for the President?

The (male) political right accused feminists of going easy on Mr Clinton because he was helping to further their agenda - tax breaks for childcare, medical insurance for children, nursery education, no more restrictions on abortion - and just wanted to keep him in office. Some suggested, not entirely without justification, that many women fancied Mr Clinton and were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, much as they might close their eyes to a lover's dalliance.

Inside women's groups, the arguments went to and fro. Some whispered distinctly unfeminist thoughts about Ms Lewinsky's supposed unworthiness for support: that she was not a "nice girl", that she had "asked for it", that just maybe she actually set out to seduce the President of the United States.

Only at the outer fringe of the feminist movement was Mr Clinton condemned: for supposedly taking advantage of a junior colleague who was scarcely older than his daughter. The few moderate feminists who put their heads above the parapet explained their silence by referring to Mrs Clinton's spirited defence of her husband. "If it's all right by her," they said, "who are we to object?" And that was the view that prevailed - until now.

Kathleen Willey's television interview may have ended the truce. Even before it was aired, Patricia Ireland, the President of the National Organisation of Women, said that if Ms Willey's accusations were true - his hand on her breast, her hand steered towards his genitals - Mr Clinton's conduct was "not just sexual harassment, but sexual assault". From then on it would be open season on Mr Clinton from all manner of feminist groups.

In theory, the caveat "if the allegations are true" allows everyone a dignified retreat, even though few - including workers in the panicky White House - now seem prepared to bet otherwise. The release by Clinton's staff on Tuesday of personal letters from Ms Willey to the President show just how dirty things can get. But something good may yet come out of the whole lurid tangle.

Monica Lewinsky - immortalised in the ridiculous film clip of her behatted self rushing out of the crowd to clutch joyfully at the President - has given Americans something sexual to laugh about. She seemed (and seems) so purposeful and so resilient that it was hard to see her as a victim; more a soubrette in the old-fashioned mould: good for Bill Clinton and good for America.

From offices across the country came tales of men and women standing by the water fountain cracking unprintable jokes about what might or might not have happened between Bill and Monica in the Oval Office. "Having sex? I sure hope they were," concluded one satirist: the thought of Monica spending her many visits at the White House advising on Nato or the budget was just too dire. If Monica Lewinsky has weakened the diktat of political ultra-correctness at work, she has done America a favour.

But so, more seriously and painfully, have all the President's women, by drawing attention to the costs as well as the benefits of America's confusing sexual harassment laws.

Consider their cases: there are five names in play, and more, it is rumoured, in the wings. Two - Dolly Kyle Browning, who says she was Mr Clinton's school sweetheart and sporadic lover thereafter, and Gennifer Flowers, who says she was his mistress for 12 years - appear to have fallen out with him over his attempts to hush up the relationships. Two, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey, say they suffered unwelcome advances. Monica as yet is saying nothing.

Whether these women are telling the truth or not, the sexual harassment laws mean that the advantage is no longer only with the powerful. Flowers, Willey and Lewinsky all emerged from their encounters with better jobs. Where sexual predation is taboo, a man's moment of weakness gives a woman power. And in Nineties America, when sexual harassment has become the crime of the age, that power is all the greater. In the case of Bill Clinton, it is the power to discredit, even topple, the most powerful man in the world.