Men behaving badly. It wasn't a topic that Terry O'Neill expected to find high on her agenda as new president of the National Organization for Women, but she's tackling it with zest and determination.
Elected as NOW's leader in June, O'Neill had plenty on her plate already — notably trying to gauge the impact on women, for good or ill, in the multiple proposals for health care overhaul. Then along came the Roman Polanski and David Letterman controversies, and she charged briskly onto a new front.
Polanski "is a convicted criminal pedophile" and making excuses for him is "dangerous talk," O'Neill declared earlier this month after some luminaries in Hollywood and Europe questioned a move by Swiss authorities to detain the film director for possible extradition to the U.S. He faces a charge dating from 1978 of having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl.
Four days after the Polanski statement, O'Neill fired another salvo after Letterman's on-air revelation — prompted by an alleged extortion attempt — that he had sex with women working under him on his "Late Show."
"As 'the boss,' he is responsible for setting the tone for his entire workplace — and he did that with sex," O'Neill said. "In any work environment, this places all employees — including employees who happen to be women — in an awkward, confusing and demoralizing situation."
The decision to speak out about Letterman prompted a surge of e-mails to NOW headquarters, many commending O'Neill and many criticizing her. One message accused O'Neill of "man-hating," while another praised her for raising the workplace issue on behalf of daughters and their parents.
Despite her other priorities, O'Neill doesn't see the two incidents as a distraction and views her statements as part of "an important conversation to have."
"Men behaving badly is exactly the problem in this country," she said in a telephone interview. "It's not a diversion — it's at the core of why women are unequal, why they are kept in second-class citizenship."
O'Neill didn't drop the topic after issuing her statements. NOW urged its supporters to rally outside movie theaters in support of victims of rape and sexual assault, and O'Neill wrote to the president of CBS, which airs the "Late Show," requesting a meeting and urging the network to appoint more women to its board of directors.
CBS declined to respond publicly to O'Neill, but noted that women are presidents of several of its key divisions, including CBS Entertainment, CBS Films, CBS Sales and Simon & Schuster.
O'Neill also wrote to Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, Inc., which replied on Thursday.
"As an employee of David Letterman's since 1985, I have personally found the work environment on his shows to be fair, professional and entirely merit-based at all times," wrote Worldwide Pants CEO Rob Burnett, who said Letterman has never been the target of a sexual harassment claim.
Burnett also noted that women hold numerous high-level executive posts in the company.
O'Neill linked the Polanski and Letterman controversies to a broader trend that has troubled her in recent years — nasty, gender-based attacks on women in public life, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama and new Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
"We're living in a time when women who put themselves forward as leaders are subjected to vicious misogynistic attacks — it's very analogous to sexual harassment in the workplace," she said in the interview. "The message to other women is, 'Stay in your place.'"
O'Neill said her dismay with Letterman didn't hinge on the legality of his conduct.
"The question is whether the atmosphere in that workplace was poisoned by that lord of the manor, where everybody is made to understand that the women are there for sex and the men are there for work," she said.
O'Neill, 57, was somewhat of a surprise winner in NOW's leadership election in June, beating a 33-year-old NOW vice president who'd been endorsed by outgoing president Kim Gandy.
O'Neill, a former law professor, vowed in her campaign to reinvigorate NOW's grass-roots activism and deploy tougher tactics to convey its views.
On the job for four months, O'Neill has found the work intense — particularly trying to keep up-to-date on how the evolving health care proposals might affect women.
She worries that the eventual plan might lack a public option allowing the government to sell health insurance in competition with private companies, and that such a result would dismay many women.
"It breaks my heart," she said, expressing fears that many progressive women would be so disheartened that they wouldn't vote in 2010 and thus create an opening for "dreadful, anti-women candidates to win."