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posted: 11/16/2011 4:00 AM

Still in the 'Mad Men' era

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We are deep into the presidential election season -- 10 debates on the Republican side, constant campaigning on the Democratic side -- and all we can say we have learned for sure is that any woman who levels a charge of sexual harassment at a GOP candidate is going to be pummeled by the conservative media and treated like a cross between a crank and a witch. In the reddest, angriest parts of America, it is best for an aggrieved woman just to shut up.

The furious counterattack against the women who in the past had accused Herman Cain of sexual harassment was led by Rush Limbaugh, who occupies a vast electronic locker room, making jokes that would be considered immature in junior high school. When one of Cain's accusers, Karen Kraushaar, said she'd like to coordinate her remarks with other Cain accusers, Limbaugh wondered why: "Do they want to synchronize their menstrual periods? Why appear together?" You can just hear the towel snap.

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As is custom, Limbaugh accused irate women (and men) of not getting the joke -- of being too PC. Earlier, he had some locker-room fun with the name of Sharon Bialek, another of Cain's accusers. Sharon "Buy-a-lick," he called her. My, my, such a potty mouth. My, my, such a jerk.

Limbaugh was hardly alone in turning on the accusing women. Bialek's financial history for some reason became public knowledge. She had been in debt. She has had two bankruptcies. The Drudge Report noted that she once lived in the same Chicago building as David Axelrod, President Obama's chief political adviser. As if to ice matters, Bialek was represented by Gloria Allred, who in countless media references is called a "celebrity lawyer." Whether this means that she represents celebrities or is one herself is not at all clear, but it does mean -- lest you miss the import -- that she is a tawdry ambulance chaser and that her client, in the characterization of the New York Post's Andrea Peyser, is a gold digger.

Peyser, Drudge and Limbaugh somehow forgot that two cases against Cain were settled and not for inconsiderable sums. If they were mere nuisance complaints, then Cain's employer, the National Restaurant Association, would not have made cash settlements of $45,000 and $35,000. This does not prove that Cain was guilty, only that the claims were not deemed frivolous. This is a bit more than just-go-away money.

Cain is clearly one of those guys who learned years ago that bluster, not the truth, will set you free. He trimmed about not even knowing about (1) the claims or (2) the settlements. This, too, does not prove that Cain is a sexual harasser, merely that he is not particularly persuasive. It's hard to believe that as the president of the association and the target of the complaints, he was unaware of the settlements. Such a man would be an odd choice for chief executive of the United States.

I know that some women (and men) bring false charges of sexual harassment merely to get a payday. Whether any of Cain's accusers did that, I cannot say but I doubt it. I know also that some sexual harassment claims arise from misunderstandings -- a remark that went sideways or a "victim" whose shoulder is nothing but chips. But I also can say that these charges are not made without apprehension by women who value their careers. They fear not only retribution -- never mind that retribution is illegal -- but also that their claim will make it hard for them to find another job. No one wants to hire a troublemaker.

I worked for an insurance company back in the "Mad Men" days. I saw the way women were treated, the incessant and quite unremarkable harassment of that period. It was, in this respect, an ugly era -- uglier for blacks, for sure, but ugly for Jews and for other minorities and for all women. Some of this ugliness lingers -- for blacks, for Hispanics, for gays and, it now seems certain, for women. The jokes of the infantile Limbaugh, the attacks on women whose claims were treated seriously by their employers, suggest some slippage in the women's movement.

The aggrieved women have faded. They chose prudence over valor, the comfort of anonymity to a public gutting. Other women must have taken notice. Cain, whose candidacy is without purpose, may yet prove useful. He reminds us of how far we still have to go.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

$PHOTOCREDIT_ON$ 2011, Washington Post Writers Group $PHOTOCREDIT_OFF$

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