The Lesson of 1998

When feminists provided cover for the president. And the effect it had on us all.

Leslie Loftis
Nov 16, 2017 · 9 min read

Every election has its takeaways — in 2016, the narrative focused on two demographic categories: economic standing and race. The analytical spotlight seemed to prioritize these aspects, and for good reason. But one of Election Night’s biggest shocks was that Hillary Clinton did not win white women. Should it have been shocking, though? Women of a certain age hate Hillary Clinton’s brand of feminism.

Earlier this week, Caitlin Flanagan picked at the source of this aversion in the Atlantic, and based on comments in response to that article, it’s possible many don’t know the story of 1998, when feminists un-ironically defended Bill Clinton’s “peccadillos” and slut shamed his accusers. It’s possible they don’t remember — or perhaps never had an opportunity to really understand — what feminists did in the 1990s to leave a generation of women alienated from any sort of female identity politics.

Flanagan covers the basics, highlighting the notorious Gloria Steinem op-ed the New York Times ran as President Clinton got caught lying under oath about his affair with a 21-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. It was horrible enough for its slut shaming of the women and excuse manufacturing for the President, but Steinem was hardly Clinton’s only aggressive feminist defender. And the story did not start there.

By 1998, the public was already accustomed to sexual assault charges against the President and feminist defenses of the same. It is an often forgotten fact, but Clinton was not impeached for the affair with Lewinsky. He was impeached for lying about the affair during an investigation into various deals and actions including his conduct during a sexual harassment proceeding brought by an Arkansas employee, Paula Jones. Lewinsky became part of that case as an example of his pattern of behavior of harassing female government employees.

The public had known about Paula Jones since 1993, and in response, feminists had not exactly covered themselves in glory. In “The Week Feminists Got Laryngitis,” Barbara Ehrenreich’s February 1998 comment on the Steinem op-ed, we can get a snippet of the mood going into the big scandal:

In Bill Clinton’s case, feminists should have passed that point long ago — say, in 1993, when Paula Jones surfaced with her sexual-harassment charge. Organized feminism lost valuable moral capital when it appeared to blow off Jones as a right-wing operative or conniving tramp. If sexual harassment is a crime — and it was feminists who fought to make it one — then it’s just as much a crime when nice-guy Democrats do it to right-leaning women with the wrong kind of hair. Or surely the yuck factor should have clicked in by 1997, when Bob Bennett, the President’s lawyer, threatened to drag Jones’ sexual history into her harassment case — ignoring the central feminist principle that even sluts have rights.

Thus, the American public was five years into stories of Bill Clinton’s workplace habits when Hillary Clinton famously stood by her man, which might have earned her some praise from the pro-family crowd had she refrained from going after the women. But in the “60 Minutes” interview in which she infamously blamed a “vast right wing conspiracy” out to get her husband, Hillary made clear that the intern story was “not going to be proven true” and that the women’s reputations would be used to demonstrate her husband’s innocence:

[W]hen all of this is put into context, and we really look at the people involved here, look at their motivations and look at their backgrounds, look at their past behavior, some folks are going to have a lot to answer for.

For the young women of Generation X, born and raised well after The Feminine Mystique named “the problem with no name” and changed the way women viewed the workplace and behavior expectations within it, this was a turning back of the clock to an era we had only read about. Yet this time it was women leaders — our supposed mentors — who were guilty of it. In law school at the time, I remember that for many of us, this change in message did not go unnoticed.

Maureen Dowd won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Lewinsky scandal. At first, she did not tolerate the feminist victim blaming. From the first entry in the Pulitzer winning series, which was a list of things we knew and did not know about the White House occupants:

The Clinton team — those great feminists — devising ways to discredit women who come forward with reports of Clinton peccadilloes? Knew that.

She followed a few lines later with a comment about the team’s “bimbo battle fatigue” in reference to Bill’s many accusers and their hair and fashion sense. It wasn’t to New York standards. The shaming got more vivid later. By the end of the year, Monica Lewinsky was, among other things, a tubby, ditzy predator, using cleavage to ensnare powerful men, and practicing her married name with fluffy flourishes of handwriting.

I pause the feminist commentary here to note that the Lewinsky scandal launched the transition to internet news. Before a little-known news aggregator called Drudge Report broke this story or Dowd’s columns took no prisoners or Jake Tapper published “I Dated Monica Lewinsky” (that’s how he got his start), we got our news on paper or from major network TV. The deep news readers among us supplemented with a handful of news blogs. But this caught our attention, and feminists did not acquit themselves well.

A 1998 Observer roundtable is representative of much of the feminist chatter of the day. A few excerpts from “New York Supergals Love That Naughty Prez: What Do Women Really Want? A Boyish Chief Executive Who’s Alive Below the Waist” can give you the flavor of women’s conversations of the era:

Nancy Friday: I don’t think it’s just Bill Clinton. I mean, these kinds of things have obviously been going on in the White House for generations and generations and generations. It’s just that, until recently, it was an all-male cadre surrounding the President. So boys love to kind of protect and goad on the leader who’s-oh, I just watched that movie with Jodie Foster. You know … where she’s raped on top of the pool table. And the guys were in the background saying go, go, go. Well, this is not rape we’re talking about, but that is the all-male audience urging on their leader to go deeper and faster and further with whatever women.

Patricia Marx: I, for some strange reason, like Clinton even more because of this. But he’s had the recklessness to pick the wrong women. I mean, Bush picked someone who was discreet. And all of my women friends and I would be happy to have sex with Clinton and not talk about it. I mean, I would have talked about it-but everyone else I know would have been discreet….

Roiphe: Why did the public opinion overwhelmingly support Anita Hill, whereas Monica Lewinsky nobody has any sympathy for?

Prose: Because none of it’s clean. I mean, I wanted Clarence Thomas out of there. You know, so I was willing to go with Anita Hill. Even though I thought, you know, What’s the big deal about someone making a joke about pubic hair on your Coke can … who cares about that? Whereas I don’t want Clinton out of there. So you know, bless little Monica … [points for honesty]

I didn’t even pick the most hair curling bits. They meander on, twice wondering about Monica for a moment only to shift to more pressing matters such as whether or not one spits or swallows presidential cum. No, I’m not kidding.

But none of it tops Nina Burleigh in the summer of 1998. For a story for Mirabella, she had interviewed the President. He had, “perhaps accidentally,” given her leg and wrist a brush and let his eyes linger a little too long on her legs. Was she, an avowed feminist, offended by the slightly lecherous once over by a man embroiled in sexual harassment scandals? No. She was flattered. Actually, she was “quite willing to let myself be ravished.” That led Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post to question her objectivity and credibility to report on politics.

In a follow-up phone call with Kurtz, she knew she needed to save face, so she gave him a quote to “knock his socks off.” When he asked about her ability to report objectively after penning the Mirabella article, she replied, “I would be happy to give him a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their Presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.”

So now, let us fast forward 20 years to the present. Clinton’s accusers were older than Roy Moore’s, but the assaults more severe. Otherwise, the stories are similar. At base, both men are accused of isolating women and using their superior power and influence to intimidate — or at least try to intimidate — the women (or girls) into performing various sexual acts.

So imagine, for a moment, the following political trajectory. Roy Moore defeats Doug Jones and takes his seat in the Senate. He gets reelected, even though these accusations never go away and more come along as time goes by, some old, some new. His defenders continue making excuses for his behavior, and attacking the women’s reputations, sometimes stealthily and sometimes through media proxies. Furthermore, during his tenure Moore supports some highly partisan provisions, and so one day, when a new accusation threatens his position, one of his lady defenders is so determined to defend him that she declares that the women of America should be so grateful for his leadership that we should get on our knees and give him a little old fashioned service, oldest profession style.

Just how willing would you be to ever take Moore or any of his defenders seriously ever again? Would you trust such opportunists with power ever again?

Hillary Clinton has since blamed her 2016 electoral losses among white and older women as a result of women submitting to their husband’s, boyfriend’s, or brother’s demands that they not vote for a woman. Not only is this patronizing nonsense, but also, she seems incapable of understanding — or unwilling to grapple with — what she and her fellow feminists taught women in 1998.

And that should be the point of the Bill Clinton reflections. Not Democratic regrets, coming 20 years late, for failing to hold him accountable when it actually mattered. Not attempts to re-litigate his transgressions. No, the look back is useful so that young women might understand some of their elders’ aversion to feminist identity. And some of us older women might pay heed: Is this what we look like now?

One last Maureen Dowd Pulitzer excerpt, from the second in the series. The prophecy:

The feminist icon in the White House doesn’t flinch at smearing these women, even when she suspects they’re telling the truth, because she feels they’re instruments of a conspiracy. It may turn out that there are right-wing troublemakers involved here, but when Mrs. Clinton uses apocalyptic language she’s just changing the subject.

Ms. Lewinsky must die so that the women of America can have better child care, longer maternity stays, toll-free domestic violence hot lines and bustling mutual funds.

Mrs. Clinton knows she can count on the complicity of feminists and Democratic women in Congress. They accept the trade-off in letting a few women be debased so that they can get more day-care centers.

The danger here is, spare the rod, spoil the President. If he escapes again, he will grope again.

Also, once you decide it’s O.K. to sacrifice individual women for the greater good, you set a dangerous precedent. Mrs. Clinton’s head might also wind up on the block.

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