I’ve been following the media’s abundant coverage of Vanity Fair’s article on Monica Lewinsky, that hit the internet last week and was in the paper editions of Vanity Fair that came out yesterday. All of the media surrounding this
media article has made me realize that there is quite a bit I don’t remember about the Clinton/Lewinsky issue. Also, a lot of it was over my head as I was still in high school in 1998. Just for some perspective, I’m on the right and, yes, this is how I looked in the early 90’s…
But at this point in my life, much of what Monica says makes sense to me, particularly what she says about her disappointment in the response to her by many women and the lack of support by some feminists, including some who were/are fairly prominent. To this day, there remain countless examples of pro-women writers lambasting other women without considering the context of the situations these women are in nor the consequences of their own actions and words. Per what I’ve read on the internet, Monica Lewinsky says that Hillary Clinton’s slamming of her was troubling. It is troubling but it is also (unfortunately) typical and, I think, understandable.
The affair initially came to light over 16 years ago and it basically dominated the American news outlets for all of 1998, due to the unraveling of the story and its aftermath as well as our fixation on the issue, overwhelmingly so on a young Monica Lewinsky, who was only in her mid-twenties in 1998. Since this time, there have been 16 years of continued women’s rights advancement and social justice strides. And yet, to this day women are still seen primarily as how they relate to the men in their lives. And on average to this day, women earn 77% of what men earn and women of color earn even less than that. To this day, the majority of impoverished people are women, white or of color.
My point is women in the US still faced oppression in the 90s and they still face oppression now. And when you experience one (or more) forms of oppression, you sometimes go into survival mode and do things that don’t make a lot of sense and could even be harmful. Sometimes your actions can’t be excused but your actions can at least be understood through a lens of trauma where the systematic oppression you experience is traumatic. For instance, it’s never okay to shame a woman’s sex life. However, if you’re a woman and you’re responding to a real or perceived threat to your own fragile standing in a misogynistic world, an appropriate response to your (trauma) response would be to ask you to stop but not to shame you in the process.
To be completely clear I am not saying that I think Hillary Clinton would have fallen into poverty and total ruin if she had not dissed (90’s word!) Monica or had distanced from/divorced her husband during this time. What I am saying is that while Hillary had/has plenty of resources and privilege (white, straight, etc), she also lives in a country and world where, on a societal level, men are viewed as more valuable than women and a woman’s worth depends upon her relationship to a man/men. So have you considered what might have happened if Hillary hadn’t stood by her husband? Perhaps women and men alike would have supported her. At least for a little while. But how much momentum would that support have given her? How much is her current success and probable future presidential candidacy based upon the fact she remained connected to her husband? Let’s face it, in this post-9/11, still-reeling-from-the-2008-recession society, we view the mid-to-late 90’s as rose-colored times (cue the Lisa Loeb song running through my head). And because of our increased nostalgia for the 90’s, many people who liked Clinton in the 90’s, idolize him now. So think about it, what if Hillary had left Bill and had gone out on her own? Would she be as successful as she is now if she were the ex-wife of someone that many people, especially Democrats, see as an amazing politician? I’m not saying she wouldn’t have been at all successful and perhaps she would have been just as successful. But it does seem highly plausible to me that she may have not done nearly as well.
The other aspects to consider in Hillary’s reaction to Monica are our cultural norms of competition and division rather than collaboration and unity. Americans are conditioned to one up others, especially when another person is deemed a threat. If you have two people who are oppressed on opposing sides, as was the case with Hillary and Monica (oppression in terms of their gender) and there’s a person who has power in the middle, the oppressed people are likely to end up pinned against each other and at odds with each other instead of in solidarity.
So all this has been in terms of Hillary Clinton. What about other feminists who ridiculed Monica Lewinsky? What was going on with them? I don’t pose this question to shame them but rather to explore what happened. Like I said there are still plenty of examples of women and/or feminists shaming other women. I think this can only be explained by our internalized misogyny and how conditioned we are, as women, to respond to ourselves and each other in a patriarchy-informed way.
The other issue I read about is that some feminists defended Clinton because he was a champion for women’s rights. Seems a little backwards to me but there is speculation on the Internet suggests that some feminists at that point felt that the harm Clinton did towards Monica Lewinsky and towards other women was less disastrous than the harm of anti-woman republican policies. I don’t think that’s true and I don’t think it’s reason to ignore the accusations being made against him. While Lewinsky said she did everything willingly, there were other reports of non-consensual advances by Clinton. That can’t be ignored. The vast majority of sexual assault and harassment claims are true and every accusation warrants serious attention. When multiple reports surface against the same person, as a society, we need to take them really, really seriously. And even if Monica Lewinsky was with Clinton of her own accord, it’s fairly clear the media coverage of her was disparagingly sexist and misogynistic, not to mention Clinton’s own degrading words and actions towards Lewinsky as he tried to cover himself.
So what do we do when this happens? It’s not like this was the only time this happened with a president of the United States, or other people in power for that matter. This could happen again so we need to consider our collective, societal response. What do you do when public figures and/or the person who runs your country is accused of violence against women or other oppressive behaviors (cough, cough, Clinton’s continuation of the war on drugs, cough, cough)? Do you blindly defend them? I would say no. I would say on a societal level, we have to hold them accountable, which is not to say that we automatically impeach them or cast them as “the bad guys.” Some policies Clinton made were good for women’s rights and that’s important to recognize. But it’s also important to recognize it seems very likely he’s mistreated multiple women in his personal and professional life and that can’t slide just because he creates good policies. What good are such policies if the people who create them engage in behavior that harms the very people those policies support and protect? How far can those policies extend and how deep can they go if the people in charge ignore them, if the people who create them don’t actually believe in the importance of them?
I know that there is much reported hypocrisy in politics and this is just one example. But I don’t think throwing up our arms and saying “that’s just politics” is going to do us any good. I believe we can and should address these behaviors when they’re committed by people of any and every political party. This doesn’t mean we discredit the good work we’ve done. It is possible to hold people accountable without denigrating them. Though you wouldn’t know it in this society.
I think now we should recognize that what Hillary Clinton did wasn’t okay but we should hold ourselves accountable and realize that shaming her, or shaming in general, is not a helpful or healthy strategy. Now is also the time to recognize that Hillary and Monica aren’t on opposing sides but rather they are on the same side of the coin. We should recognize the media/public response was and is teeming with sexism and it is more complex than a rigid with-us-or-against-us dichotomy.