by Merle Hoffman
All told 1985 was not an unusually dangerous year. There had been a rash of fire bombings at abortion clinics, a physician had been kidnapped, and my secretary was attending a course with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to teach her how to correctly open my mail so that she could avoid being blown away by a letter bomb. It was, after all, business as usual for those of us on the front lines of the abortion wars.
Meanwhile, on the political front, the Reagan administration had asked the Supreme Court to overturn -Roe v. Wade and return the right to regulate abortion to the states. At the same time, high on the anti-choice agenda was a human life amendment that would make the fetus a “constitutional” person.
I had formed the New York ProChoice Coalition and, with NARAL and NOW, was organizing a rally and march to celebrate Roe: it was a time of meetings and politics during which I had what now appears to be a stereotypical interaction with Senator Bob Packwood.
Packwood was an early and ardent player in the abortion struggle, a staunch and able ally of the pro-choice forces on the Republican side of the Senate. After meeting with him at a New York fundraiser for abortion rights and soliciting and receiving a piece from him for what was then the fifth issue of OH the Issues newsletter, he called me to request a meeting at a New York City hotel. Unaware of any rumors of what is now being described as “loutish” behavior on Packwood’s part, I approached our meeting with a mixture of curiosity and anticipation. The atmosphere in the hotel lounge where we met was relaxed and low-key. Our conversation ranged from the political to the philosophical to the personal. We discussed the existential nature of power and what causes we would die for, and those we would send others out to die for. He seemed to be genuinely moved by the responsibilities of his office – especially as they involved issues of life and death. He spoke freely and openly of his family and the pleasures and frustrations of public life, particularly the amount of time spent away from home. He alluded to the fact that he was often lonely. In the course of the conversation he complimented me on my dress, my style, my intelligence and the energy of our interaction, enough so that I realized he was expressing a physical attraction to me. The exalted nature of his position did not influence my feelings towards him. I did not find myself physically attracted to him, and because I showed no interest, I did not expect the embrace and attempted French kiss in the middle of Park Avenue as I hailed a cab.
On reflection, this story has little importance in either my political, psychological or personal history. But now that Packwood is in the eye of a great gender storm and is under an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee, it stands out starkly in my memory.
The first question I asked myself was whether or not I shared any of the reactions described by the women who have come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment. I am of course aware of the difference in my position regarding Packwood – I did not work for him either as a paid staff member or volunteer; he did not hold any direct, indirect or potential power over my career or personal life as he did in the case of his accusers. I also wanted nothing from him. Unlike Gena Hutton, Packwood’s 1980 campaign chairwoman – who described her first reaction to his advances as one of “shame,” believing that since “he was the great person I thought he was… this had not happened with other people” – I felt no shame or amazement. I was secure in my own attractiveness and never thought for a moment that I was a unique focus for a man as powerful, privileged and obviously available as Packwood appeared to be. I was not prone to assume that men who did good deeds in the public arena were necessarily good boys in the private realm. Packwood’s sexual come-on was just that – the fact that it was more an adolescent groping than a sophisticated seduction was more of an annoyance than a threat. I still thought highly of our conversation. I enjoyed the fact that we had connected, and I found that I still respected Packwood the Senator in the morning.
Packwood the man is a different story. A recent piece in the New York Times describes the fire against him by women’s groups as being fueled by a sense of “betrayal.” Was Packwood’s early support of abortion rights, it asks, a true expression of avant-garde Republican liberalism or a form of political opportunism?
And if, in fact, Packwood is a boor who makes unwanted assaultive advances to women – without doubt a reprehensible behavior – can we yet deny that he was responsible for having helped move the debate on women’s reproductive freedom forward? Isn’t it significant that not one of the women accusing him of sexual harassment has charged him with abusing his power, or of penalizing her on the job? Does the fact that he made inappropriate and nerdish sexual advances to women in his employ or campaigns negate his past and early support of women’s causes?
Paige Wagers was a 21-year-old awestruck mail clerk in Packwood’s office in 1975, when Packwood pulled her hair back and stuck his tongue into her mouth. Uncomfortable, she eventually left the job for another government position. Six years later she met him on Capitol Hill, and as they walked through a basement corridor he pulled her into an empty office toward a couch. She repulsed him, and Packwood let her go, but the memories remain painful. “He totally sucked me in because of all the flattering things he said to make me trust him. So that moment, I died inside. I was humiliated. I wasn’t even human to him. I was like a dog, someone who couldn’t possibly have feelings.”
According to Patricia Ireland, president of NOW, “It’s an insult to the Senate that he or anybody else would not have known it was wrong to tear at a woman’s clothing, to stand on her toes, to stick his tongue in her mouth.” An affront, yes, an annoyance, yes, an insult, yes. But the women who have come forward to accuse Packwood speak of feeling intimidated and threatened, and in a way that seems to scar them for life. By all accounts his pathetic sexual overtures were immediately withdrawn when he was rejected, and of course the women felt violated and enraged, as well they should. But why do they feel permanently devastated? How can he hold such powerful emotional sway? Did Packwood’s fall from grace seem all the more egregious to his accusers because of his position – were they disappointed that his power was not pure – that a Senator who fought politically for women’s rights was perhaps a pathetic regressed adolescent? How is it that any man could make us feel like a dog – something less than human – just by attempting a boorish pass? How could we become so immediately diminished?
The questions we need to ask are what and who diminishes us? And then, what and who do we allow to diminish us? Sexuality itself, as it currently is named, defined, sold and commodified in American culture, often diminishes women. If we don’t begin to develop our own definitions of self and sexuality, if we don’t develop individual values, we could easily become co-opted by the mores and expectations of the collective reality – the one that is male controlled and male-defined. Then, surely, we will begin to judge ourselves by what others think we are, by who we’re sleeping with, what gender, what class, and what race. We use the names with which we have been labeled to define and judge ourselves and others: mother, wife, mistress, whore, witch, vamp, virgin, frigid, nympho, dyke. And so it is with women’s sexuality and sexual behavior. Here too, we are differentiated and labeled by those who view us and use us as objects.
And then the question must be asked, if there is power in the naming of sex who will we allow to do the naming? How many of these definitions and descriptions are woman-centered, woman owned, woman-defined? Why do we incorporate the dehumanizing metaphors of the male language? Why is it that the connections between women and animals made so strongly in pornography, connections that come so easily to men in the way that they describe women as bitches, pussies, beavers, etc., come so easily to us too? Paige incorporated one of them – dog. Does that mean she became muted like a dog because he chose not to hear her person? Did she feel subordinate and pliant like a dog with its master? Why do we have to do the psychological work of the oppressors for them? How can we allow anyone – any man – to kill us “inside” in that place where no one should be allowed without invitation.
We must develop an inner sense of value, confidence, and self in spite of, not just because of all the socio-political messages to the contrary. We must begin to claim our sexual selves and name our sexual pleasures.
If every unwanted look, stupid remark, and sexual gesture has the power to make us feel “less than human” then what kind of power can women ever lay claim to – what revolution is this whose participants can be laid siege to with a look or vanquished with a kiss?*