Clinton's Crisis: Why America's feminists are strangely muted

Women who might be expected to condemn sexual harassment are going easy on their philandering president
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Indy Lifestyle Online
AMID all that's been said about the Bill Clinton saga, a normally voluble group of people have been surprisingly restrained in their pronouncements: American feminists.

The Lewinsky affair, with the Paula Jones case, has reopened the question of whether partisan politics has clouded the judgements of women's organisations.

Jones's lawyers have accused women's rights advocates of hypocrisy for not joining their client's cause, though they quickly jumped to the rescue of Anita Hill after she publicly accused the then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, a conservative, of sexual harassment.

On the other hand some feminists have argued that their reticence is nothing to do with Democrat bias; rather that at the moment the Lewinsky case is nothing more than allegation and counter-allegation and that the benefit of the doubt should go to a president who has proved himself pro- women in his policies.

The National Organisation of Women, one of America's most powerful groups, has felt the need to defend itself: "Our positions on cases involving allegations of sexual harassment against top public officials are not based on partisan politics," it announced on its web pages. "Feminist principles trump practical politics, and we have not pulled any punches - not even against our erstwhile allies. We protested at the White House when President Clinton said he would sign the welfare repeal bill, warning that many of our activists would not work on his re-election if he did."

Not everyone agrees with them. Andrea Dworkin, one of America's most radical and controversial feminists, fired the opening salvo when she suggested that Hillary shoot Bill and Al Gore pardon her: "Au revoir Slick Willy," she wrote. "I don't want him as my president. I think he's toast." Dworkin feels many feminists are disappointed in Clinton privately but are reluctant to say so publicly because of their Democrat support.

Erica Jong disagrees. "What we are seeing is a press frenzy, people writing a lot of opinion pieces with little or almost no facts in them," says the author of Fear of Flying and Fear of Fifty. "Ironically, I think that the American people are far less interested in Clinton's peccadilloes than the press. We've accepted the fact that Clinton, as many presidents have been, is extremely promiscuous. It's not the first time it's happened. It's as if the president has become the national jester, a national side show."

Jong is not alone in feeling this way. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique wrote last week that she was "outraged" that Clinton might be brought down by such allegations. "It is no consequence to me what Clinton does in his private life ... All that is important is his public policy."

Says Jong: "I think the reason feminists haven't pronounced on it is because, first, it is a shabby business, spying on someone's private life. Second, there is no proof. It's the 'he said, she said' stuff. The other thing is that Bill Clinton has advanced the feminist agenda so people are loath to take him down. I think we're cynical about politicians. We believe that politicians would not be there in public office if they were genuinely moral people."

But Camille Paglia, American lesbian and agent provocateur, thinks we should not let Clinton off the hook: "I found the Paula Jones case far more convincing than the Anita Hill case. I'm a supporter of Clinton's. I've voted for him twice but there is a kind of abandonment of principles by feminists. There is a far too great collusion with the Democratic Party."

She complains of "deafening silence" from "principled feminist leaders" throughout a series of scandals surrounding Clinton. "This is an issue of enormous power differentials - the President of the United States and one of the interns in his office . It is appalling that he can't manage his sex life - it's a failure of management and a lack of judgement."

She feels that there is a "a terrible moral hollowness". "The feminists should be coming to the aid of this girl - her picture is sent all around the world. I don't know how she's going to survive this. Yet not a single feminist has spoken out for her - Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi, Betty Friedan. They're completely silent. Not a peep from any of them when they should be coming to aid this young girl.

"I believe that a leader's sex life should be their private business but in situations like a university or a corporate workplace there should be moderate sexual harassment guidelines.

"Clinton's behaviour was inappropriate and I think what feminists are doing is utterly disgraceful. This is a low point in feminist history."