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Cain, Sexual Harassment and the Campaign Against Women in Public Life

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Does Herman Cain respect women? His wife, Gloria Cain, now speaking publicly, suggests that her husband would not be "totally disrespectful of [one of those alleging of sexual harassment] as a woman, and I know that's not the person he is." The problem is that the issue at hand is not whether Mr. Cain has treated his wife well, or even respects women as women (whatever that means), but why he is, under the aegis of a presidential run, leading a de facto campaign against women in public life.

Sexual harassment is unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is unwelcome sexual advances, requests for favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is used either to create terms of employment ("quid pro quo" sexual harassment) or intimidate ("hostile work environment" sexual harassment).

A joke misunderstood, a come-on not reciprocated -- this is not the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission's definition of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is an abuse of power, a means of defining women and girls (or, less often, men and boys) as outsiders, subordinate objects for the sexual pleasure of those in power, typically men.

Departing from defined provisions within law, Mr. Cain has suggested that sexual harassment originates in the eye of the beholder. He would have us believe that sexual harassment is not defined by the actions of the perpetrator, but rather by women who are particularly sensitive or sexually unavailable. In so doing, he has led a chorus of right-wing politicians and commentators in suggesting that sexual harassment is a myth that has made it impossible to tell jokes in a co-ed environment (Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY.), could be solved by having women wear burqas to work (Rush Limbaugh) or, perhaps most confusing, as a concept disrespects the strength, power and creativity women bring to the workplace (Katie Roiphe).

In short, we have been hearing that sexual availability defines women, and it's up to women to manage their sexuality on behalf of everyone around them (sounds like an extra job, compounding the injustice of longstanding wage gaps). There are two words for this: sex discrimination.

Sex discrimination in the workplace is often dismissed as part of the natural order. Men are paid more because they work hard. Women are passed over for promotions because they're too busy trying to juggle their careers with their personal lives. That's why men wield the lion's share of control over the means of production -- at work, within the payroll, in public life. Or so the story goes.

Which brings us back to Mr. Cain and the sexual harassment allegations. We don't know if they are true, but we do know Mr. Cain's campaign has handled them by issuing a full-on assault on women in public life. Mr. Cain's lawyer issued a threat for women to "think twice" before coming forward with more allegations. The two women with names made public have been openly smeared with allegations they are unstable, unable to hold a steady job, incompetent in the management of their finances, subject to paternity disputes. Even as Mr. Cain was protesting that he didn't know Sharon Bialek, his campaign was emailing a smear with her name on it around the country.

We also know that Mr. Cain refers to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as "Princess Nancy." In the last week, he has taken the time to crack a joke about Anita Hill, who knows a thing or two about the chorus that surrounds a man in power accused of abusing that power in private, and how harshly a woman can be excoriated for telling her story to the public.

Just like Justice Clarence Thomas, Mr. Cain has suggested the sexual harassment allegations against him have been brought forward for purely political purposes. In his case, it's particularly difficult to believe the two women who settled their allegations against Mr. Cain with the National Restaurant Association in the late 1990s could have been so prescient as to believe he would be in a close race for the Republican nomination for president of the United States one day. He has suggested, vaguely, that there is an element in this country that does not want to see a businessman succeed.

Most disturbingly, he continues to preside over a radical right-wing campaign against the participation of women in public life. It's possible he does not realize he's doing this. With pressure, women and men can make sure Mr. Cain understands the broader implications of his tactics and those defending him.

Whether the sexual harassment allegations are true or false, it's time for Mr. Cain to step up and clarify his views on the role of women in public life. Does he agree with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act? How would he change the application of sexual harassment policy? Will he disavow the woman-trashing perpetuated by others in his name? These questions deserve to be answered.