Hillary Clinton And Monica Lewinsky: True Feminist Heroes

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Hillary’s been in the spotlight for 25 years, and unlike other first ladies, she’s generated much of the attention on her own terms — as senator, secretary of state, and presidential candidate. As she continues to battle Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination for president, the country has been poring over her record with additional vigor — and hers is a record with plenty to scrutinize.

And yet, in recent debates and questioning, more than once the press has moved beyond attacks on her political career, and instead questioned her about her home life — pondering everything from what Bill Clinton would do as First Gentleman to his past “indiscretions with women,” the not-at-all-subtle innuendo for his record of sexual allegations, both consensual and non-consensual.

Donald Trump has hit Hillary hardest in an attempt to hold her accountable for the actions of her husband. But it would be unfair to cast blame for this categorization only on him. Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit has been doing battle with the blue dress for decades now. And not because either party wants to.

In a 2014 interview with the BBC, Clinton fielded questions about her husband’s affair from 17 years ago, when she no doubt would rather have talked policy. In particular, she was asked to respond to Monica Lewinsky’s comment that she was “the most humiliated woman in the world.”

“Well, that is something we have certainly moved beyond and our country has moved beyond,” Clinton said. “I have wished her well, but it’s important to stay focused on what’s happening in the here and now.”

All these years later, though, it’s not something everyone in the country has been able to move beyond. For Lewinsky, nearly two decades after her tryst with Bill, the Clintons very much remain in the here and now. She has watched her life pass her by, her history as “That Woman” preventing employers from hiring her, a permanent American jezebel. “I eventually came to realize that traditional employment might not be an option for me,” she wrote in Vanity Fair last year. “I get it: It must be disconcerting to sit across from ‘That Woman.’”

Lewinsky was 24 when her affair with the president became public, and unlike Hillary, she’s since tried to stay out of the spotlight. That is, until recently: “After all,” she wrote in the magazine — her first words about the affair in 10 years — “not lying low had exposed me to criticism for trying to capitalize on my notoriety. Apparently, others talking about me is okay; me speaking out for myself is not.”

Today, Hillary Clinton is running for president of the United States; Monica Lewinsky is giving public speeches about shame, humiliation, and bullying. An unlikely and unwilling pair for nearly two decades, these two women are, in fact, modern-day heroes. For many women, they represent the American experience as we know it, their stories encapsulating struggles every woman in the United States face.

We are all Hillary Clinton.

We are all Monica Lewinsky.

Their lives and the content of their characters have been stripped of all context in favor of objectification and petty gossip. Whole articles talk about Hillary’s love of mocha cakes and how she ate dozens during the trial of her husband. Other pieces concentrate on staff rumors about Monica; how they called her “the girlfriend” and she ultimately served as “roadkill.”

The fingerprints of our patriarchal culture are everywhere in depictions of them. When it fits the narrative, Hillary is a cold, ambitious shrew, and Bill had no choice but to seek warmth elsewhere. In the comments section of a Business Insider article from April 2015 detailing how Hillary handled the affair at the time, statements like, “If Hillary was all that at satisfying Bill in the bedroom, there wouldn’t be a Monica” and “What is obvious, is that it is a marriage of ambition and power, not of love and sex” represent the majority of written opinion.

Monica, meanwhile, has been cast as the “stupid” young, power-hungry girl who was willing to compromise her ethics and entire life for sex. In her TED Talk, Monica states, “I think a lot too had to do with the fact that I was a woman; to be called stupid, and a slut, and a bimbo, and ditzy; and to be taken out of context. It was excruciating.”

What woman can’t relate to being so crudely stereotyped? Are we not constantly labeled too sexy to be “professional” or too bossy to be “desirable”? Too masculine, too effeminate? “Gold-diggers” like Monica or “ruthless” like Hillary? Instead of being judged by the content of our minds or the achievements of our lives, we are plagued by definitions that cling to our relationships with men. Nothing makes that clearer than the whispering that follows Hillary and Monica, not women in their own rights, with their own life paths, but characters in the Bill Clinton play.

What sets Hillary and Monica apart is not the rumor mill to which they are subjected, but their reactions to it. They have been pitted against each other, but they have managed to skirt that false rivalry and continue on their own roads. Hillary remains unshaken on her quest for the highest office in the United States. And when Monica couldn’t find work in the traditional way, she used her excruciating experience to shore up other women, to give them a voice and a support system. In this way, she is making a huge, public difference. Together, but apart, they fight what they’ve been made out to be, exposing the flaws of such stereotypes while deepening and broadening the definition of womanhood in America.

Both have addressed the vitriol and attacks levied against them with patience and strength; Hillary in interviews and on the campaign trail, and Monica in her talks and speeches across the nation. They’ve continued to fight for their rights as individual people with individual identities, reminding people constantly and gently that women are not their emotions, women are not their home life. Women are worth more than the clothes they wear and the company they keep. They are more than dalliances with men.

More than just talking, they’ve acted. More than just telling, they’ve shown. They’ve lived. They’ve kept going.

The unintended consequence of society’s reaction to the two women on either end of this deeply personal yet public scandal has been to inspire many to look beyond predetermined cultural definitions of good and bad, and to see through the stereotypes of womanhood so ingrained that we never even question our belief that in an affair, both the wife and the other woman are to blame.

“Does the media owe Monica Lewinsky a collective apology?” a 2014 Time Magazine article asks. “There were no websites like Jezebel back then, no feminist bloggers, no Women’s Media Center to call out sexism in the press. And so the media vilified her.”

Meanwhile, The L.A. Times published a column just this month defending Hillary’s choices in her own marriage as hers alone. “Obviously no one would have blamed Hillary for leaving Bill over the Monica Lewinsky scandal or any number of previous improprieties. But her choice to stay never struck me as a sign of weakness or compromise. It struck me as the choice of a woman deciding that the value of her relationship with her husband was greater than or equal to the humiliations and setbacks caused by a philandering nature she was probably aware of from the get-go.”

Over the past two decades, the public has slowly made space for the narrative of these two women. And through patience, perseverance, and their abject refusal to allow the public to define them, these two women have shown other women the way.

Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky are true American heroes.

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Lead images: Wikimedia Commons

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