A Report From The Front

IN THE SPRING OF 1993, Peggy Kimzey, a clerk at the Wal-Mart store in Warsaw, Mo., was bending over a package when she heard her boss sniggering. She turned and demanded to know what was so funny. "I just found someplace to put my screwdriver," he replied. Kimzey was understandably furious. For more than a year, she and other female employees at the store say, they had endured similarly "abusive remarks" from male employees. Despite complaints to supervisors, nothing changed. So Kimzey finally quit--and sued. Wal-Mart has a wonderful policy on sexual harassment, she told the jury, but it "just refused to enforce it." In June 1994 the jury agreed and awarded Kimzey $50 million in punitive damages. Even after the judge reduced the award to $5 million a month later, it was a record verdict for an individual in a sexual-harassment case.

A decade ago, complaints like Kimzey's would have been dismissed with a winked understanding that "boys will be boys." But that was before Anita Hill raised the nation's consciousness about sexual harassment. Even more important were some fundamental changes in federal law that made it easier to sue. In the debate that followed Hill's 1991 testimony during Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearings, women learned about the little-known legal concept of a "hostile environment"--a job situation made untenable by a co-worker's repeated, sexually inappropriate behavior. That same year, Congress passed a civil-rights law that allowed jury trials and punitive damages in all employment-discrimination cases, including those for sexual harassment. In 1993 the Supreme Court made winning a harassment case more likely, ruling unanimously that a victim did not have to prove psychological harm, just that the sexually inappropriate behavior took place.

Not surprisingly, the annual number of sexual-harassment complaints filed with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has more than doubled from 6,000 in 1990 to 15,300 in 1996. Fearing lawsuits, businesses have instituted strict no-touching, no-ogling, no-innuendo policies. Corporations aren't the only institutions changing their mores. After 27 years in the Senate, Bob Packwood was forced to resign in 1995 when female staffers accused him of unwanted kissing and inappropriate remarks. Packwood insisted the women just misunderstood his intentions. But his colleagues couldn't afford to protect him in the post- Anita Hill climate.

Meanwhile, sexual harassment is getting more expensive. Monetary settlements reached through the EEOC have risen from $7.7 million in 1990 to $27 million this year. In cases that have gone to court, juries have shown real contempt for companies that didn't seem to react fast enough to charges of harassment. As a new secretary in a San Francisco law firm in 1991, Rena Weeks was assigned to a senior partner who she says behaved like an overeager adolescent. Once, for example, he pulled back her arms "to see which breast was bigger." So Weeks complained to her office manager. Within a month she was switched to a different partner; the offending lawyer was eventually fired. Still, the jury that heard her case in 1994 decided that because there was a history of similar complaints against the lawyer, the firm hadn't done enough. It awarded Weeks $7 million (later reduced to $3.5 million), or 10 percent of the firm's total net worth.

In this newly sensitized environment, Paula Jones's case can seem strikingly retro. According to Jones's claim, when Clinton propositioned her he appeared to threaten her by saying her boss is "my good friend." Since Hill put the whole issue at the forefront--six months after the alleged Jones-Clinton encounter--that kind of raw demand for sex has become relatively rare, at least according to the cases filed. Pat Vacarro of Jackson, Lewis in New York, the nation's largest labor-law firm, calls it "stuff only Neanderthals do." Which means, he predicts, that Jones's suit probably won't alter the culture as dramatically as Hill's did. But it will draw attention to the problem again--so cavemen beware.