Nannygate Ii: A Women's Backlash?

Bad as it was for the Clinton administration, "Nannygate II" was devastating news to women's political activists inside the Beltway and elsewhere. For the second time in as many weeks, a talented woman lawyer, U.S. district court Judge Kimba Wood of New York, had been forced to withdraw from consideration as Bill Clinton's attorney general because of nagging-and in Wood's case, truly niggling-questions about her employment of an illegal alien as a domestic helper. There was talk aplenty about double standards (would a man have to answer the same questions?) and grumbling about the glass ceiling. Wasn't the Nanny Test just one more way of keeping a whole class of potential nominees--qualified lawyers who happen to be working mothers-from becoming the first woman attorney general of the United States? "I went to sleep thinking about it," said Georgetown University law professor Patricia King, "and I woke up in a rage."

What made it worse was the suspicion that Wood had essentially lost her chance to make history because of other people's mistake--chiefly, Zoe Baird's. In fact, Wood's nanny problem had nothing in common with Baird's. Baird and her husband had plainly broken the law by hiring illegal immigrants as domestic help, and they had demonstrated a certain chintziness by neglecting to pay the employer's share of social-security taxes. Given their $650,000-a-year income, that touched a populist nerve. But Wood had hired her Trinidadian babysitter in 1986, when it was perfectly legal to employ undocumented aliens, and she had paid all required taxes and kept scrupulous records during their seven-year business relationship. Wood had broken no law, and she had done nothing more than what many working mothers must do in the attempt to juggle family and career. "I would hate to see us embark on a policy that didn't allow women who work outside the home to employ child care," said Judith Lichtman, president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund. "I don't think what Wood did disqualified her."

But Wood's withdrawal reinforced a growing sense that women candidates for high appointive office were caught in a rarefied version of the Mommy Trap. "My first reaction to the news about Zoe Baird was 'Godamned-how many men in the Senate and in Congress have this problem and don't even know about it?'" said Rosalind Rosenberg, a historian at Bernard College in New York. "If the nominee had been a Mr. Baird, would the issue even have surfaced?" Georgetown Law Center's King, a close friend of Wood's, asked whether "we [are] suddenly going to start examining every part of people's lives and their child care? ... It seems to me there is a double standard here." (For the record, all 18 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will screen Clinton's nominee for attorney general, claimed in a recent NEWSWEEK survey that they had never hired an illegal alien and that they had paid all required taxes for any domestic workers.)

The fear now is that Clinton, twice burned, would settle for a man as A.G. At the weekend, White House officials said the president and his advisers had gone back to their original list of potential nominees, and there was no indication how soon a new candidate would emerge. The troubling part for women's activists was that the two leading contenders left on the list were said to be men Charles F. C. Ruff, a Washington attorney, and former Virginia governor Gerald Baliles.

But the complaints about a double standard seem to have registered. Ruff admitted to The Washington Post that he had failed to pay social-security taxes for a 71-year-old domestic worker, claiming that he didn't know the tax payments were required. White House sources said Ruff was probably out of the running for A.G. as a result-and they also hinted that Clinton was in no hurry to name Baliles.

That left many in the movement hopeful that Clinton would yet find a woman to serve as the nation's top law-enforcement officer. Though some activists were wary of pressing this demand too hard, others had no compunction about asserting the claim to equality. "No one thinks that because Clarence Thomas wasn't a great choice for the Supreme Court, we shouldn't consider a black again," said Kathryn Kolbert of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. "The fact that the first two choices didn't work out doesn't end the president's commitment. What we're after here is parity." But this form of parity is mostly symbolic-and given the embarrassing results so far, Clinton and the women's movement alike may need to take a second look at the real-world political costs of a symbolic victory.