“That Woman”

Monica_Lewinsky_304-300x300
Monica Lewinsky

I didn’t identify as a feminist when I was a teenager. Instead, I watched the country devour a young intern for ratings, moral outrage, and political points. This post isn’t about Hillary Clinton (who can be excused from sympathizing with the other woman as the wronged party) or Bernie Sanders. It’s not about Newt Gingrich, Kenneth Starr, or FOX News and how they misused her. It’s about white feminism, and abandoning a young woman who didn’t fit their respectability narrative. It’s about that “special place in hell” Madeline Albright spoke up at a Clinton campaign event last week. This is about the women who should have known better. 

Feminist figures and women leaders of the 1990s, who had championed workplace sexual harassment policies and legislation, downplayed the power imbalance between the leader of the free world and the $6.35/hour intern he had a sexual relationship with.

“Does anyone really care if young Monica found an interesting new position at the White House?” – Judy Mann, feminist columnist for Washington Post

They portrayed Monica’s consent as sexually liberated, unaffected by things like power differential.

“If anything, it sounds like she put the moves on him.” – Susan Faludi, author of Backlash

They excused Bill because he was married to a respectable woman.

“He’s married to a woman who’s at least his equal, whom he clearly likes and respects” – Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. Magazine

They worried more about how Bill’s decision to pursue sexual relations with a subordinate employee half his age would impact the party than how it might impact Monica.

“It will be a great pity if the Democratic Party is damaged by this. That’s been my response from the very beginning – I just wanted to close my eyes, and wished it would go away.” – Anne Roiphe, author of Up the Sandbox

In short, they abandoned their principles to cape for a man accused of sexual impropriety numerous times before. They treated Bill Clinton as a special case, not an example of workplace quid pro quo sexual harassment, but as evidence that the president had sexual magnetism. They made excuses for him. And they threw a young woman to be torn apart by media dogs. Sometimes they joined in the carnage themselves.

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Monica survived it. Today she does anti-bullying work and speaks out against the kind of “shame as blood-sport” that was done against her. But she had to get there without the support of feminist women she should have had. Monica was a victim of sexism in reporting, in late-night television jokes, and in the responses from feminist leaders. The women who should have been her allies were too busy defending the man who wouldn’t even admit to their affair.

Feminism has to be for all women – not just the good women, the rich women, the white women, the East Coast women. I didn’t feel like a good girl as a teenager watching the scandal unfold. I still don’t feel respectable. It’s just not who I am, but it doesn’t mean I deserve or need feminism any less.

The feminism that left Monica to suffer whatever fate the 24/7 news cycle could conjure for her actively sought to protect Bill from the consequences of his actions. The same feminism is the one that had Madeline Albright chastising Sanders supporters this week. “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”

I have to ask, how many of these feminists will be in that special hell? I don’t write this just to recognize the sins of the past, but to heed the warnings in them: Don’t become so attached to “feminist” men that they can do no wrong, and do fight for the rights and dignity of ALL women, even the ones who aren’t “good girls”. There will always be Monicas, imperfect women who don’t fit respectable virgin-madonna roles, who still need feminism. The question is, how will we treat them?

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