Mothers Who Think: The Willey of our discontent

American women are as weary of the sexual policing of the '90s as they are skeptical of the president's latest accuser.

By Katie Roiphe

Published March 19, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Have you noticed that Kathleen Willey's name almost never appears without the word "credible" in close proximity? Everyone from Newt Gingrich to Anita Hill has commented on her credibility. She doesn't have the chubby sensuality of Monica Lewinsky, the trailer-park twang of Paula Jones or the Penthouse glamour of Gennifer Flowers. "Credibility" is a code word for upper-middle class. It is also a code word for Not Likely to Steal Your Husband. Certainly Kathleen Willey's accusations are no more or less serious than Paula Jones' and her story is no more or less riddled with contradictions and ulterior motives, but she looks right. She sounds right. With her sensible hair and high cheekbones, she has the slightly generic quality of a "Good Morning America" host; she could be your mother, your sister, your third-grade teacher.

She has also been a "reluctant witness," not like the others who seem -- with their eyebrow waxing and enthusiastic blow drying -- to be just a little too eager for the photographers and television cameras. Willey, on the other hand, didn't want to come forward. Her plans to write a book about the 10-minute incident and rumors of her financial troubles notwithstanding, part of her credibility lies in the irrational belief that she has nothing to gain from coming forward. But this new emphasis on "credibility" is itself somewhat misleading. Most Americans believed Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers, and many even believed Paula Jones, but it's not a question of belief. It's a question of caring: Most Americans just don't think the president's indiscretions are worth plunging stocks and the instability of a new government.

What really happened in that slender hallway between the Oval Office and the president's study? Linda Tripp, who has the knack of being in exactly the right place at the right time -- like the narrator in a bad spy novel -- observed that Willey was "flustered, happy, joyful." Willey, just this week on "60 minutes," claimed to be angry. Afterwards she wrote letters and job requests to the president, calling herself his "number one fan" and signing her letters "fondly, Kathleen." Whatever happened, it was obviously an emotionally complicated moment, and the structure and format of a show like "60 minutes" or a legal deposition do not exactly lend themselves to emotional complexity. The questions and answers are by definition stark and clear, and almost no human situation can fit into that kind of starkness and clarity.

Picture yourself in Willey's place trying to talk about an ambiguous sexual experience. Millions of Americans are watching. The studio lights are melting your makeup. You are trying not to be distracted by your own image on the television screen. "Did you feel intimidated?" "Not intimidated, more like overpowered." Could it be that you felt overpowered, joyful, flustered and outraged? Could it be that your heart was beating, and you hated him and loved him, and felt comforted and flattered and guilty about your husband? I don't know how Willey actually felt at the moment President Clinton did or did not put her hand on his crotch. I just know that the steely simplicity and absoluteness of terms like "sexual harassment" can't even come close to describing the complicated play of power in most encounters between real people.

The New York Times editorial page has described Kathleen Willey as a "mature, trusting woman," but was she really "trusting"? On "60 Minutes," she revealed that she knew the president was attracted to her. The previous year on the campaign, when he said to come over and bring him chicken soup and he would get rid of his Secret Service agents, she didn't go because "my instincts told me he wasn't interested in chicken soup." Those same instincts seemed to have mysteriously departed on Nov. 29, 1993.

Perhaps she is not really as innocent as she presents herself. Is it possible that she was using her knowledge that the president was attracted to her to get a job? Is it possible that the president was using his job to get sex? Both scenarios are possible, and the possibilities are not mutually exclusive. They could mesh together into a web of motives and desires that led to the situation in the hallway and the dissonance between that situation and all of the "fondly, Kathleens" that followed.

Because the events in the hallway were so ambiguous, because it is his word against hers, people tend to believe what they want to believe. Up until now most women in this country have been standing by their man, and in the first few days after Willey's revelation polls show that women are still inclined to believe the president. The polls offer a vision of a nation whose dinner parties have been riven by controversy, with men attacking the president and women defending him. "It's none of our business." "I don't care what he does in his private life." The male guests at these dinner parties are understandably perplexed: They are not supposed to compliment a woman in their office, but the female population seems unexpectedly tolerant of what NOW president Patricia Ireland called Clinton's "roguish" behavior.

It may be that women find a man who acts on his appetites, who tramples on our ambivalences, who does all of the masculine, aggressive things men are not supposed to do, sort of refreshing. It may be that the president is fulfilling a secret caveman fantasy in an era of too much sensitivity. And though we don't actually condone his behavior, we secretly revel in it because it liberates us from the restraint and caution and politically inspired politeness that has shadowed the past decade. In a country where a 6-year-old was suspended from school for sexual harassment after kissing another 6-year-old on the cheek, we are finally reacting against the strange blend of feminism and Puritanism that created this atmosphere in the first place.

Prominent feminists have begun to slink onto talk shows. Ireland announced her sudden discovery that the president is a "sexual predator" (has she only just figured this out?). But the rest of the country isn't behind her. She is speaking in the hollow and outdated rhetoric of another era.

Over the next few days we'll see what happens to this credible witness. We'll see if women finally turn against the president or if the near hysteria surrounding sexual harassment has faded. Will the same people who saw Anita Hill as a heroine, a victim, a sainted martyr to the cause of women just trying to get ahead in this nasty world respond to the upright Willey in the same way, or has the mood in the country shifted irrevocably since then? Our impatience with the sexual policing of the early '90s, with terms like "sexual harassment" deadening our understanding and flattening our experience into a legal feminist nightmare, may have reached a critical point. Kathleen Willey, credible, upper-middle class, the president's No. 1 fan and worst enemy, will measure not just this administration's staying power, but all of our discontent and restlessness and yearning for a new sexual politics.

Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe is the author of "Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End" and "The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism on Campus."

MORE FROM Katie Roiphe

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton