Did feminists fail Monica Lewinsky?


The Washington Post

Monica’s Lewinsky’s essay in the new issue of Vanity Fair raises all sorts of questions. Why is she writing this now? What does she want? What’s her next move? And of course what do her words mean for Hillary Clinton? Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus argues that Lewinsky has done the former secretary of state a solid by plainly stating that the affair was consensual, thus blunting Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s argument that Bill Clinton was a sexual predator.

And polls do in fact suggest that Lewinsky is a kind of unintended Hillary Clinton wing woman — the former first lady’s favorable ratings got a significant boost from the focus on her husband’s dalliance with Lewinsky at the time.

But the question that Lewinsky says still troubles her even now 16 years after the affair came to light centers on the role of feminism and the movement’s leaders back in 1998 when the former White House intern found herself on the other end of “global humiliation” and was endlessly branded as a thong-wearing stalker and in recently revealed private conversations a “narcissistic loony toon” in the words of Hillary Clinton.

The cigar, the stained blue dress and the salacious Ken Starr report created a hard-to-shake image of Lewinsky as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” to borrow from another 1990s sex scandal.

Lewinsky’s question is this: “So where, you might be wondering, were the feminists back then?”

Nowhere to be found in Lewinsky’s retelling. She recounts a gathering written up in the New York Observer in February 1998 under the headline: “New York Supergals Love That Naughty Prez,” in which Katie Roiphe, author of The Morning After, seems to corroborate her more recent claims. Roiphe said in part: “Even mainstream feminists who you’d think would come out and say, ‘You know, here’s this poor young woman being exploited, let’s take her side,’ they’re not taking her side.”

When asked to comment, Anna Holmes, founder of feminist website Jezebel, replied in an email: “My first reaction is that she’s right: I don’t recall many, if any, well-known feminists coming to Monica Lewinsky’s defense at the time her affair with President Clinton came to light.”

What were feminists saying at the time? As it turns out Vanity Fair comes in handy again. In May 1998, in an article called “Clinton and Women,” feminists sound off on the affair that led to Clinton’s impeachment and led conservatives and others to call feminists hypocrites for backing Bill Clinton and shunning Lewinsky.

Here’s what author Marjorie Williams found when she did a round-up of feminists:

“See no evil … ‘It will be a great pity if the Democratic Party is damaged by this,’ the feminist writer Anne Roiphe told [Williams]. ‘That’s been my response from the very beginning — I just wanted to close my eyes and wished it would go away.’ “

“Hear no evil … ‘We do not know what happened in the Lewinsky case,’ said Kathy Rodgers, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. ‘The only thing that is clear is that the facts are not clear.’ 

“Speak no evil … ‘We’re trying to think of the bigger picture, think about what’s best for women,’ said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.”

And this from a 2000 Los Angeles Times interview with Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique — the book that launched second-wave feminism:

“Q: Do you think that [Al] Gore is suffering from some fallout over the Monica Lewinsky scandal?

“A: What is that? I can’t stand the way you media people just trivialize everything. It’s the campaign for the president of the United States. … What is your concern with some little twerp named Monica? What has she got to do with the presidential election? That just disgusts me.”

Sixteen years later, some are again pointing to the failure of women to rally behind Lewinsky, arguing that the slut-shaming continues and is being led by women — “Why are women piling on Monica Lewinsky?” was the subject of an exhaustive (and exhausting) Morning Joe segment that mirrored much of the conservative arguments about feminists at the time.

In her essay Lewinsky suggests that the institutionalized hegemonic and politicized version of feminism is just not for her:

“I still have deep respect for feminism and am thankful for the great strides the movement has made in advancing women’s rights over the past decades. But given my experience of being passed around like gender-politics cocktail food, I don’t identify myself as a Feminist, capital F. The movement’s leaders failed in articulating a position that was not essentially anti-woman during the witch hunt of 1998. In the case of the New York Supergals, it should not have been that hard for them to swoon over the president without attacking and shaming me. Instead they joined the humiliation derby.”

Added Holmes: “I am uncomfortable with the idea that ‘feminists’ failed Ms. Lewinsky. I am far more comfortable with the idea that certain high-profile activists, intellectuals and writers who’d exhibited a measure of sophistication and sensitivity with regards to gender politics failed her and failed her big time.

“I wish that Monica Lewinsky had parsed the explicit ways in which other women failed her and the ways in which some women have long been socialized to fail one another rather than making seemingly grand pronouncements about ‘feminists’ and ignoring the myriad of ways in which those who think and write about gender politics have reinterpreted the events of 1998 in the years that followed.”

© 2014, The Washington Post

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