When the affair between 25-year-old Monica Lewinsky and then-President Bill Clinton went public in 1998, the White House intern was lambasted a slut, a whore, and a tramp. Now, 16 years later, she could be the next big role model.
Young women today may not have lived through The Lewinsky Scandal as adults, but rallying behind wronged women who have found their voice is a millennial mantra – and Lewinsky, after being ostracized for over a decade, is capitalizing on that.
With a three-word tweet and a moving speech, Lewinsky this week is back in the spotlight, positioning herself as an advocate for eliminating cyber-bullying and calling on young people to own their identities.
On Monday, at Forbes magazine’s “Under 30 Conference,” Lewinsky, now 41, stood by her actions and by her name – which she said she’s been often advised to change. She told more than 1,000 young entrepreneurs that she wants to “put my suffering to good use and a purpose to my past.”
“What we really need is a cultural revolution. Online, we’ve got a compassion deficit – an Empathy Crisis – and something tells me that matters a lot more to most of us,” Lewinsky told the group, adding that she hopes her story will make a difference to other victims of cyber-bullying.
So far, she’s having a mostly positive influence, especially on women now the same age she was when she began her relationship with Clinton.
“As I have gotten older and more intertwined with social media, I have viewed Lewinsky through a completely different perspective,” 21-year-old Virginia Tech student Katherine Coulter told msnbc. “At the time of the scandal, her story was not perceived as someone who was victimized by the president or media.”
Lewinsky’s name will be forever linked to the scandal, which led to the second ever impeachment of a sitting president – but she’s found a way (or a solid start) to turn her experience into a good thing.
“I commend her for her enthusiasm to take on the often difficult political landscape for women – especially considering her past,” 22-year-old Syracuse University student Alexandra Curtis told msnbc. “While Lewinsky hasn’t been a credible figure in political history, I do commend her for moving past extreme public humiliation and scandal to enter a field she is passionate about.”
One college student even found hints of feminism in Lewinsky’s speech – a word the infamous former White House intern previously said she doesn’t embrace.
“Not letting one mistake define you and trying to reclaim your narrative – that is a very feminist-y position to take and something women can really rally behind,” Georgetown University student Alyssa Peterson told msnbc.
“Obviously she made a mistake,” added Peterson, who like Lewinsky is also a former White House intern. It would probably be hard, Peterson said, for almost anyone to fend off a president’s advances.
Lewinsky’s physical relationship with Clinton ultimately led to his impeachment by the Republican-controlled House in 1998. He was acquitted by the Senate in 1999.
Post-scandal and post-White House, both Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, have enjoyed thriving careers – he in philanthropy and she in politics and diplomacy as President Obama’s first secretary of state.
Lewinsky, on the other hand, vanished for years after authoring a memoir about the scandal and trying to launch a line of handbags. She emerged this summer, speaking to Vanity Fair about the affair and Hillary Clinton’s likely 2016 presidential campaign.
Peterson, who works on campus to combat sexual assault and domestic violence, said “people try to cover up their stories … I think it takes a lot of courage to step out.” And in a world where sexual assault and online harassment exacerbated by social media is unfortunately prevalent, “Monica Lewinsky, victim of Internet bullying” may just be a voice twentysomethings can cling to.
“There was no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram back then,” Lewinsky said at the Forbes event. “But there were gossip, news and entertainment websites replete with comment sections and emails which could be forwarded. Of course, it was all done on the excruciatingly slow dial up. Yet around the world this story went. A viral phenomenon that, you could argue, was the first moment of truly ‘social media’.”
As more young women face similar issues of Internet bullying – most recently the leak of several female celebrity nude photos, which victim Jennifer Lawrence called a “sex crime” – the passion to tackle it becomes stronger.
“There are many women out there who may find that Monica Lewinsky’s story gives them hope,” Jessica Davidson, a 20-year-old junior at the University of Denver said. “[It] may resonate with other young women who have been in a similar situation in their own workplace, or even with college women who have been sexually shamed on Facebook.”
But for Lewinsky to remain a strong voice taken seriously by a new generation of interns and young working people, she should use her new audience of Twitter followers – more than 70,000 and still growing – wisely.
“If she uses the automatic media attention she has received in a way she can help women that are experiencing exploitation, I would look forward to hearing more from her … but hearing more about the affair, that book is closed,” Peterson said.