Who's backing up Cain accusers?

Herman Cain denies Tuesday that he acted inappropriately with female employees as head of the Nation Restaurant Association.

Story highlights

  • Cain's campaign, conservative groups voice support for GOP contender
  • Concerned Women for America issues statement backing accusers
  • Other national women's advocacy groups have been less outspoken

By now, it's a familiar scenario.

The woman walks soberly to the podium surrounded by lawyers and supporters. Silence falls and cameras flash as she delivers a prepared statement, followed by comments from a lawyer, possibly Gloria Allred.

Then come the response and outrage.

In the case of Herman Cain, we've heard the GOP presidential contender "absolutely reject" allegations that he sexually harassed anyone in the 1990s, saying he'd take a lie detector test to defend himself from "false, anonymous, incorrect accusations."

Referring to Sharon Bialek, his first accuser to go public in a press conference Monday, he blamed the "Democratic machine" for bringing forward a "troubled woman" to make allegations against him.

In terms of outrage, Cain's campaign and numerous conservative groups have gone to bat for him. But who's come to the support Bialek or Karen Kraushaar, his most recent public accuser, and the others, apart from celebrity lawyers?

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A conservative Christian group best known for its stance against abortion was the first national organization to publicly support Bialek. The president and CEO of Concerned Women for America said Monday that Bialek appeared "credible" as she detailed allegations in a press conference Monday.

"While seeing Gloria Allred insert herself into another national scandal (her last client was a porn star) was disturbing, listening to Sharon Bialek's story of how she was dealt with by Herman Cain was even more shocking," Penny Nance said. "Mr. Cain needs to address these new allegations head on. Unlike anonymous allegations, Miss Bialek appeared credible, and I was very disturbed by her characterization of what happened."

Comparable outrage from other nationally recognized organizations has been somewhat muted. When contacted by CNN, the vice president of the National Organization of Woman said the most disturbing aspect of the unfolding controversy is the broader attack on women who come forward with workplace sexual harassment allegations.

"What we're talking about right now is a cultural conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace and how a prominent political figure is handling himself during these allegations," she said. "We're also talking about how women who make sexual harassment allegations are treated in the press and by extension, how other women who make sexual harassment allegations can expect to be treated."

Suggestions that the allegations are politically or financially motivated are offensive and denigrate real instances of sexual harassment, she said.

"The idea that a woman would file sexual harassment allegations in the late 90s because she anticipates in 2011 that he will be running for president is ludicrous. It's also very offensive to cast something as serious as sex harassment in the workplace as simple a political ploy."

When contacted by CNN, several other organizations lamented the allegations as signs that sexual harassment is still alive and well. But not all have been eager to join the media circus.

"We haven't been asked for our opinion. But of course, we have a position against any kind of workplace discrimination or sexual harassment," said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women.

The broader discussion of harassment ties to a report that AAUW released this week, which found that nearly half of boys and girls in grades 7-12 reported experiencing sexual harassment at school.

"What bothered them most was the whole issue of unwelcome sexual comments. If we don't start taking care of this issue, talking about it openly and having a strong, full response, what we have is harassing behavior that starts very early and moves itself up the ladder to national politics."

Advocacy groups that work for the equitable treatment of women are likely watching the situation unfold, waiting for a bigger factual picture to emerge before taking a stand, said Sherry Saunders with the Business and Professional Women's Foundation.

After all, those groups deal with issues related to inequity every day in their work to overcome them, she said. Given the unfortunate regularity of sexual harassment allegations, the fact that makes this case exceptional is that the alleged perpetrator is not just a manager, supervisor or CEO, but a man vying to be president of the United States.

"Sexual harassment is certainly one of our issues, but we don't jump on every story in the media," Saunders said. "We tend to make direct approaches to try and work with businesses and provide them with tools to make their workplace better. Putting out a press release every time something happens isn't necessarily productive. We're trying to make a real impact and educate people."

Many women's advocacy groups are nonprofit organizations, and therefore don't take positions on political candidates or their personal scandals, said Fatima Goss Graves, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center.

But, generally speaking, the threat of retaliation or character assassination is a huge deterrent for anyone considering going public with allegations of sexual harassment, she said. She compared this scandal to the allegations brought forth by Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas 20 years ago and how there was a rush to discount her claims and attack her credibility.

"The over 11,000 charges of sexual harassment that EOC sees each year doesn't include all that occur in workplace. Those are just people who were willing to make a formal complaint to the EOC," she said. "It doesn't include people who may go through the company's internal process, and then there are people who don't complain at all, but stick it through, or quit rather than face retaliation."

Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America has been there. She said her own experiences with workplace sexual harassment led her to resign from a previous job.

"Early in my career I resigned from a trade association for the exact same reason and with no financial settlement. I simply found another job," Nance told Politico last week. "Therefore, I know in a very personal way that sexual harassment exists and that it's demeaning and painful. It should never be tolerated in the work force and certainly not the White House."