Before MeToo movement, there was Bob Packwood
The "MeToo" movement has forced out a growing number of men in politics, entertainment and media who have been accused of sexual misconduct.
But 25 years ago, a group of women had their own "MeToo" moment when they made public allegations of sexual harassment against Oregon's U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood. The Republican senator, who was known for championing women's and reproductive rights, eventually resigned in 1995 under threat of expulsion by the Senate.
"When someone asks me what I think about 'MeToo,' I say I was pioneer," said Portland resident Julie Williamson, who was a secretary in Packwood's office in 1969.
Eventually, 23 women went on the record in the Washington Post in the early 1990s to allege sexual harassment by the then-Republican senator.
The events precipitated by the women's willingness to come forward were arguably milestones in the movement toward speaking out against sexual misconduct by powerful men.
"The 'MeToo' movement was built on the shoulders of everyone who went before," said Eugene resident Gena Hutton, one of Packwood's accusers. "We had to go through all of this stuff so the voice would be loud enough."
Hutton was Packwood's campaign chairwoman for Lane County during his re-election bid in 1980. After their first meeting over dinner at the Red Lion Inn in Eugene, Packwood walked her to her car, turned her around and kissed her, slipping his tongue into her mouth. Hutton said her initial reaction was to try to protect the then-married senator from anyone seeing. She gave Packwood a ride to his room across the hotel parking lot. He tried to persuade her to join him inside his room but finally gave up after Hutton firmly rejected him.?
Amplifying a national discussion
The Packwood scandal marked the first time more than one woman made on-the-record complaints against a U.S. senator and the first time the Senate Ethics Committee investigated allegations of sexual misconduct and voted to expel a senator, said Florence Graves, the investigative journalist who broke the Packwood story in the Washington Post.
The incidents Graves reported spanned nearly two decades, between 1969 and the mid-1980s. Packwood was married to his wife, Georgie, during that period. They separated in 1990 and eventually divorced.
Media coverage of the incidents led the Senate to pass the Congressional Accountability Act, subjecting U.S. lawmakers to the same laws it has passed for other employers. The stories also "dramatically amplified national discussion about workplace sexual misconduct, which, I believe, spurred companies to revise and strengthen their sexual harassment policies," Graves wrote in an email to the Pamplin/EO Capital Bureau.
Many hoped the women's stories would lead to the equivalent of the "Me Too" movement of the 1990s, but at the time, women relied on the media to identify a pattern of abuse and get out their stories. "The platforms of social media have probably made a tremendous difference in empowering the 'MeToo' movement because women can find each other, and there can be a quick pile-on," said Portland resident Mary Heffernan, a former abortion rights lobbyist who accused Packwood of sexual misconduct. "There is an ability for word to spread quickly. It doesn't have to be a reporter doing this really hard digging. It can pop a lot faster. We didn't have anything like that."
Williamson said she had privately talked about her experience with Packwood for more than 20 years. She worked as a secretary in Packwood's office in 1969 when he pursued her so forcefully she resigned to avoid him. When she resisted Packwood's initial come-on, he grabbed her ponytail, pulled her head back and gave her "a big wet kiss, with his tongue in her mouth," according her testimony to the Senate Ethics Committee.
"With his right hand, he reached up under her skirt and grabbed the edge of her panty girdle and tried to pull it down. She struggled, got away from him and ran into the front office. He stalked out past, paused at the threshold to the hallway and told her, 'If not today, someday,' and left," according to the ethics committee's report.
'And it's loud'
But when investigative journalist Florence Graves approached Williamson about going on the record about her experience, Williamson said she would only do so if other women did the same.
Portland resident Gillian Butler, Hutton and Heffernan said they also were reluctant to come forward because in 1991 — just a year before Graves' first story on allegations of sexual harassment against Packwood— they had seen how U.S. senators had treated Anita Hill. The law professor made sexual harassment allegations against her former boss, Clarence Thomas, during a Senate confirmation hearing for his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, and many senators made attempts to impugn her testimony, according to media reports.
"The more people that speak out about it, the more comfortable you feel that you will be believed. And then you can stop wondering what you did to bring this on," Butler said.
Packwood's unwanted advances toward Butler dated back to 1980 when she was a 23-year-old college student working as a desk clerk at the Red Lion Inn in downtown Portland, where Packwood regularly stayed, she said. After showing interest in a letter she had written to his office complaining about the reinstated mandatory draft registration, he invited her for drinks to discuss the letter, she said. Because she felt wary about the invitation, she asked her then-boyfriend, Kevin Kouns, to come along. During a later stay at the hotel, when Packwood was checking out, he unexpectedly reached across the front desk and kissed Butler on the lips, she said.
At the time, Butler said, she thought it might have been an isolated incident and didn't think it was significant enough to report. The women later appeared on 60 Minutes and 20/20, but reporting on sexual misconduct eventually faded out of the mainstream media, Graves wrote in her email to the Capital Bureau.
"Male editors told me reporting these kinds of stories made them uncomfortable," she wrote. "A New York Times reporter who was on a radio interview with me said that The New York Times would never have done the Packwood story. Why not? He said that the Times' editors were not comfortable writing about 'men's sex lives.' I countered that this was a story about abuse of power and ethical transgressions, not about a man's sex life."
Packwood went on to become a lobbyist and consultant. In an email to the Capital Bureau, he declined to comment for this story.
The women interviewed for this story said the "MeToo" movement appears to have more staying power. "I am so thrilled to be alive to witness this stage of it," Hutton said. "I don't believe oppression is sustainable anywhere. Whether it's racism or sexual abuse or any kind of abuse, I think we seek to heal that, and this is a wonderful voice that is speaking out right now. It's not perfect, and there are people who will take advantage of it, but thank goodness it's there and it's loud."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.