How Bill Clinton neutered the feminist movement

The President's sordid affairs have drawn barely a murmur from America's powerful sisterhood. In an exclusive extract from the forthcoming issue of `Vanity Fair', Marjorie Williams reveals some ugly truths

Marjorie Williams
Friday 03 April 1998 23:02 BST

OKAY, class, let's review: The man in question has been sued for sexual harassment over an episode that allegedly included dropping his trousers to waggle his erect penis at a woman who held a $6.35-an-hour clerical job in the state government over which he presided. Another woman has charged that when she asked him for a job he invited her into his private office, fondled her breasts, and placed her hand on his crotch. A third woman conceded to friends that when she was a 21-year-old intern she began an affair with the man - much older, married, and the head of the organisation whose lowliest employee she was. Actually, it was less an affair than a service contract, in which she allegedly dashed into his office, when summoned, to perform oral sex on him. After their liaison was revealed, he denied everything, leaving her to be portrayed as a tramp and a liar. Or, in his own words, "that woman".

Let us not even mention the former lover who was steered to a state job; or the man's alleged habit of using law-enforcement officers to solicit sexual partners for him; or his routine use of staff, lawyers, and private investigators to tar the reputation of any woman who tries to call him to account for his actions. Can you find the problems with his behaviour? Take your time: these problems are apparently of an order so subtle as to escape the notice of many of the smartest women in America - the writers, lawyers, activists, office-holders, and academics who call themselves feminists.

When news broke that Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr was investigating whether President Clinton had lied under oath about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, or encouraged others to lie, the cacophony that ensued was notable for the absence of one set of voices: the sisterly chorus that backed up Anita Hill seven years ago when her charges of sexual harassment nearly stopped Clarence Thomas's confirmation to the Supreme Court.

With very few exceptions, feminists were either silent or dismissive this time. "If anything, it sounds like she put the moves on him," said Susan Faludi, author of Backlash. Betty Friedan weighed in, but only to huff her outrage that Clinton's "enemies are attempting to bring him down through allegations about some dalliance with an intern... Whether it's a fantasy, a set-up or true, I simply don't care."

It was not until former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey appeared on 60 Minutes in mid-March to make public the allegation she had formerly made in a deposition - that Clinton had manhandled her during a private meeting in which she sought a paying job - that some feminists began to make reluctant noises of dismay. The National Organization for Women (NOW), which until then had found itself "unable to comment responsibly," averred that "Kathleen Willey's sworn testimony moves the question from whether the President is a `womaniser' to whether he is a sexual predator."

But NOW'S change of heart was by no means typical of feminist activists. Many others hung tough. Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the National Women's Political Caucus - the premier group promoting female participation in American politics - described Willey's charges as "quantity rather than quality, in terms of my feelings." She continued: "There's no question that it's disturbing... But to come to any judgment now is definitely not something that I think is timely."

With the exception of a few Republicans, women in Congress - including several swept to power by female outrage over the Senate's treatment of Anita Hill - have shown an equal agility of mind. Their excuses range from the procedural stonewall ("What is important for the American people to know is that there is a process in place to deal with these allegations," in the words of Senator Barbara Boxer), to the creative inversion (What about Ken Starr's "humiliation" of the women he dragged before the grand jury? fumed Representative Nancy Pelosi) to the truly fanciful twist on gender politics ("Not so many years ago, a woman couldn't be a White House intern," said a straight-faced Senator Carol Moseley-Braun on Meet the Press).

Feminists have, all along, muffled, disguised, excused and denied the worst aspects of the President's behaviour with women - especially in their reactions to Paula Jones, whose sexual-harassment suit they have greeted with attitudes ranging from tepid boilerplate support to outright hostility. The chief reason for feminists' continued support of Clinton is clear: Clinton is their guy. Clarence Thomas was their enemy. Bob Packwood, a liberal Republican who was the next recognised boor to walk up to the plank, was a harder case for feminists, but in the end they tied the blindfold. Clinton, though, is the hardest case, because he is the most reliably supportive President they have ever had.

But if political opportunism is the main cause of their current blindness, it's not the only one. You can find in their reasoning a road map to everything that ails liberal feminism today: political self-dealing, class bias, and dedication to a bleak vision of sexual "liberation" that has deprived them of what was once the moral force of their beliefs. So, it seems appropriate to say here that I am a feminist and a registered Democrat. Many of the feminist activists in Washington are women I've known for years as sources; I feel an open sympathy for much of the work they do. Yet, I also feel something close to fury over their failure to call Clinton to account for his actions. My anger may be bred, in part, by my own past willingness to "put in perspective" Clinton's questionable behaviour with women - enough, at least, to vote for him twice.

The individual pieces of the Clinton saga are complex, snaky things with their own tawdry confusions. But these are precisely the complications that Clinton has capitalised on. The truth is that, while a lot of the facts are murky, enough of them are clear. We have good evidence, for example, that Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, had a state trooper escort Paula Jones to his suite at Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel during her work hours, and we know that she gave contemporaneous accounts of the meeting to several witnesses which closely track the allegations in her lawsuit. We know that there is extensive evidence of a relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky that has not been challenged by the administration. We know Arkansas state troopers have said under oath that Clinton used them to enable his sexual escapades in Little Rock. And we know that Clinton has lied about his past behaviour - including the sizeable lie that underlay the supposedly informed decision of the American people that they didn't care about his womanising: his elaborately careful 1992 denials of his affair with Gennifer Flowers.

Where America's women leaders have failed is in their unwillingness to draw even the most commonsensical conclusions from the evidence of Clinton's recklessness.

It's plain enough why feminists want to keep Clinton in office. He is pro-choice; he signed into law the Family and Medical Leave Act, which had been vetoed twice by a Republican president; he favours affirmative action, which benefits women more than any ethnic group in the country; he has made childcare a policy priority this year. According to the Center for the American Woman and Politics, Clinton has appointed 10 of the 21 women who have served in Cabinet-level positions, including the first woman ever to be secretary of state or attorney general. And he appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court.

While most of the Washington-based women's organisations that lobby and promote women's participation in electoral politics maintain a veneer of bipartisanship, a web of relationships links them to the Clinton administration. White House communications director Ann Lewis, who has been one of Clinton's fiercest defenders on television, was once the chair of the Democratic Task Force of the National Women's Political Caucus. Anita Perez Ferguson, who now chairs the caucus, formerly worked in the Clinton administration, as a White House liaison for the transportation department, and at the Democratic National Committee.

And then there's friendship: Hillary Rodham Clinton's friendships, in particular, may have neutralised some of the women who might otherwise be criticising Clinton. When I called Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, who chairs the (theoretically bipartisan) Women's Campaign Fund, her assistant cheerfully told me, "I know that Marjorie has not made any comments about recent" - here he stopped and groped for a word - "events ? Just because she is friends with Hillary." When women activists were charging up the hill to oppose the nominations of Thomas and other conservative Reagan- Bush appointees, one of their comrades-in-arms was Melanne Verveer, then the chief lobbyist for the liberal organisation People for the American Way, now the First Lady's chief of staff.

Feminist investment in Clinton has grown over time, even as the allegations about his sexual behaviour have increased. During Clinton's first campaign, women activists were suspicious of the "New Democratic" elements of his agenda. To this day, they remain angry at him for signing into law the radical welfare revisions of 1996, which overwhelmingly affect poor women.

But with that exception, there has been a sea change in their attitudes toward him. For one thing, after the congressional elections of 1994, they saw him as all they had standing between them and Newt Gingrich. For another, the 1996 election marked the first time the gender gap exceeded a president's margin of victory, and suddenly feminists had, in Clinton, a poster boy for the theory on which they had long based their claims to power. (Never mind that a scant minority of the women voters in question were voting on "feminist" issues; most were moderates who liked what Clinton had to say on education, jobs and crime.) At last, feminists felt that they had some real leverage with the White House.

There is a shift in elite opinion about both Clinton and sexual mores. Exhibit A was a bizarre 30 January gathering hosted by the New York Observer at the restaurant Le Bernardin, where 10 Manhattan "supergals" - including writers Katie Roiphe, Erica Jong, Nancy Friday and Francine Prose, designer Nicole Miller, former Saturday Night Live contributor Patricia Marx, and "retired dominatrix and writer" Susan Shellogg - were invited to drink wine and analyse the scandal.

The resulting exchange, published by in the New York Observer's 9 February issue, was galactically strange. The women agreed that they liked Clinton better for having had a titillating affair; after all, he's kind of a hunk. Jong, for one, wants a president who is "alive from the waist down," and Marx declared him "cute and getting cuter all the time." They pronounced Starr (in Friday's words) "a big sissy", and speculated about whether Lewinsky had swallowed the President's semen. "Oh," squealed Jong, "imagine swallowing the Presidential come."

It was the most embarrassing thing I had read in a long time. But then I opened the next week's New Yorker, which contained a swooning "Fax from Washington" written by Tina Brown herself, describing the 5 February White House dinner for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The subtext was that the Clinton scandal had marvellously improved the President's aura: it made him deem so ... hot "Now see your President, tall and absurdly debonair, as he dances with a radiant blonde, his wife... Amid the cliches about his charm, his glamour is undersung... Forget the dog-in-the-manger, down-in- the-mouth neo-puritanism of the op-ed tumbrel drivers, and see him instead as his guests do: a man in a dinner jacket with more heat than any star in the room."

This is precisely the sort of retro whipped cream that feminists are supposed to be able to see through; once upon a time, they construed it as their job to help the rest of us do the same. But these days, feminists - the famous feminists, that is; the mainstream feminists; the ones who are called up by newspaper reporters and TV stations - are an established part of the country's elites: the media elite in New York, the political elite in Washington. And this is one of the major reasons they have failed to hold Clinton's feet to the fire.

In easing past the contradictions of the feminist class system, Hillary Clinton is the crucial figure. It's common knowledge that she has been her husband's most important protector. "The fact that Hillary doesn't seem bothered by it gives women an excuse, in a way, to be tolerant of his behaviour," says Radcliffe Public Policy Institute fellow Wendy Kaminer.

But less appreciated is a second, more subtle way in which Hillary has shielded her husband. She is, in effect, his feminist beard: the symbolic guarantor of his political bona fides. He may hit on women like Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones, her presence says, but when it comes to sharing a home (and a presidency) he chose a woman like me. Again and again, feminists cite the Hillary factor as mitigating evidence. Gloria Steinem told me: "He's married to a woman who's at least his equal, whom he clearly likes and respects."

In some ways, it's baffling that feminists can still argue seriously that one Hillary trumps a multitude of Monicas. Even leaving aside Clinton's repeated public humiliations of his wife, she's always been a dubious feminist heroine: after all, she married her power, and in the White House she has wielded it without accountability. In truth, there's an awful affront to women in the apparently sharp distinctions that Clinton draws between the kind of woman you marry and the kind of woman you seek out for pleasure. We were supposed to be doing away with the Madonna and the whore - or at least trying to integrate them.

If feminists had stopped to think of Monica Lewinsky as a real person, it might have slowed them down. The most grotesque aspect of the case is this determination to depict Lewinsky's end of the alleged affair as liberated, autonomous female sexuality in action, instead of as the pathetic picture it was, of a young woman seeking a dubious affirmation in all the wrong places. To be sure, the May-December romance is always a complex, two-way transaction. But what little we know of the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship suggests that in all of the specifics that matter - when he called, when and where they met, what they actually did with each other, and even when she was allowed to speak to him - the relationship was controlled (duh!) by the powerful, married, 50-ish man, not by the 20-something woman on the lowest rung of the status ladder.

Why do feminists find it so hard to acknowledge the ugliness of this arrangement? One reason is that Lewinsky's age is a very touchy point: if you have argued for years against parental consent laws for teenagers seeking abortions, you may feel hard-pressed to admit that many women in their early 20s are a few years shy of emotional maturity.

Among the most honest women I interviewed for this piece was Marie C Wilson, president of the Ms Foundation for Women, who related her experiences, early in her career, as a lobbyist for liberal causes in the Iowa legislature. "I knew how to talk about the kinds of emissions standards I wanted for Iowa companies, and what kind of childcare standards I wanted for the children of Iowa, and... Would you please move your hand?... And most times I didn't get the emissions standards or the childcare. Now," she says of Clinton's presidency, "I've gotten emissions standards, and I've got better childcare, and I've still got the hand. But that's better than the other way."

A very few women were willing to make this argument directly: that feminists could find some honour in making a dispassionate, tough-minded decision that Clinton's value in office outweighs the sordidness of his personal life. But making this argument is something different from simply sweeping his behaviour under the rug; it's the pretence, above all, that does the damage.

And this is why the feminist failure matters. By wishing the problem away, feminists call into question one of their most important victories of the past decades: the hard-won consensus that men should not use social and economic power to recruit sex partners in the workplace, and that it's fair for both sexes to expect limits on how much sexual relations are allowed to distort the system of rewards. I'm talking here not about feminist legislative achievements, but about a shift in the extra-legal realm of mores, the shift that followed and ratified the actual laws against specific forms of sexual harassment.

It's all very well to protest that we shouldn't look to our politicians as role models: the saga of Clinton's sex life is being played out on too large a screen to ignore. You can say until you're blue in the face that public men are entitled to a realm of privacy; that certain kinds of bad private behaviour do not necessarily conflict with political competence, or even genius; and that adultery is not in itself of feminist concern. These are all irrelevancies. This mess is on our hands, and we do not have the luxury of arguing with its existence; the best we can do is call it what it is.

Denial is insidious; it always claims more than you think you have ceded to it." We would not be doing our job if we didn't take into account that this president and his policies are crucial to the lives and welfare of the majority of women in this country," Gloria Steinem assures me. "That's not bending over backwards: that's being sensible. Having said that, if Clinton had raped women, beaten up Hillary - real private sins would not be forgiven, no matter what the value of the public behaviour."

There it is, fellas, in case you're still confused: it seems we just lowered the bar.

The full text of this article will appear in the May issue of Vanity Fair, out in the UK from Wednesday, 8 April.

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