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Who betrayed Monica Lewinsky?

Monica Lewinsky says she was abandoned by feminists. Is she right?
Monica Lewinsky in New York, N.Y., Dec. 5, 2006.
Monica Lewinsky in New York, N.Y., Dec. 5, 2006.

“I don’t want to make a career out of being Monica Lewinsky. I haven’t done anything to be proud of.”

That’s what Lewinsky told her biographer, Andrew Morton, in Monica's Story, published in 1999. This week, with Lewinsky back in the spotlight with a first-person essay in Vanity Fair, it is clear that she has not gotten her wish. She writes that she has been unable to get a job and is still dogged by the scandal of her long-ago affair with Bill Clinton.  

Lewinsky’s latest re-entry into public life is primed with material to make a very well-trod story newly relevant: She addresses Hillary Clinton’s possible 2016 presidential run, she wants to talk about online bullying, and, in several lengthy passages, she feels betrayed by feminists.

Lewinsky points out that she was partly pulled back into the spotlight by Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, another likely 2016 presidential hopeful, who referred to Bill Clinton as "predatory" in recent interviews to counter Democratic claims of a GOP “war on women.” (You may be familiar with this line of attack from other tales of sexual impropriety or harassment by Democrats, including former Rep. Anthony Weiner or former San Diego mayor Bob Filner -- which neatly elides the fact that the bulk of the "war on women" is about policy. The Clinton affair was, in fact, the original flavor of this tactic.) Lewinsky agrees with conservatives on this much: Feminists were not there for her. 

“I still have deep respect for feminism and am thankful for the great strides the movement has made in advancing women's rights over the past few decades,” she writes in the essay. “But, given my experience of being passed around like gender-politics cocktail food, I don't identify myself as a Feminist, capital F."

She writes that "some good, old-fashioned, girl-on-girl support was much in need. None came.”

Lewinsky singles out a particularly egregious roundtable convened by the New York Observer in 1998 which included the writers Erica Jong and Katie Roiphe, wherein Lewinsky was referred to as “some non-brilliant woman” and “not that pretty.”  The writer Nancy Friday suggested that as a next career step, “She can rent out her mouth.”

As Rebecca Traister points out, these women hardly represented powerful positions in organized feminism. (Roiphe in particular has made a career as an antagonist of feminism.) But it doesn’t take long to find other, even higher-profile examples that should, and sometimes did, make a principled feminist cringe, and which corroborate Lewinsky's account.

The bestselling author of Backlash, Susan Faludi said, “If anything, it sounds like she put the moves on him,” and said Lewinsky had been “sleeping her way to the bottom of the Revlon empire." (Shortly before the affair became public, Clinton's friend Vernon Jordan had been trying to arrange a job for Lewinsky at Revlon in New York in part to get her away from the president.) 

Feminist and Democratic strategist Susan Estrich wrote, “Lewinsky at least appears to have flirted her way to a job at Revlon and, when that disappeared, a $2 million modeling offer and the status of the most-sought after woman in the world. Not bad, some might say, for someone who can’t type.”

NOW’s president, Patricia Ireland, did issue a statement saying, “We want to state clearly our belief that it would be a misuse of power for any public official to have a sexual relationship with an employee or intern.” But that was after broad criticism of the group's initial silence on the matter. Gloria Steinem wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that awkwardly tried to thread the needle, saying, “The power imbalance between them increased the index of suspicion, but there is no evidence to suggest that Ms. Lewinsky’s will was violated; quite the contrary.”

If Kathleen Willey, who had accused Clinton of sexual assault, was telling the truth about his behavior towards her, Steinem wrote, “[Willey] pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” That is a depressingly low bar for a man who both holds disproportionate power and who was supposed to be on feminists' sides.

What accounted for this squirming among feminists? It wasn’t just that Clinton was a Democrat after decades in the Reagan-Bush wilderness, a pro-choice president who appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court and signed the Family Medical Leave Act, although that was crucial. After all, feminists could argue that whatever Lewinsky meant as a symbol shrank next to the impact of Republican policies on millions of women.

But there was something else: Lewinsky scrambled the framework of consent that had been hammered out, because she was a woman who always insisted she hadn't been exploited.

She still insists that. "Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: It was a consensual relationship,” Lewinsky writes in Vanity Fair.

Meanwhile, feminists were sensitive to decades of claims that they were anti-sex. “We’re not against sex; we’re against the use of sex to cajole, humiliate, coerce,” Steinem told journalist Marjorie Williams in Vanity Fair at the time. “We need to trust the women here. If we say a 21-24 year old has no sexual will, we’re going against the whole struggle for self-determination and taking responsibility for our own lives," Steinem added.

Williams begged to differ. She argued that the story should instead have been seen as “the pathetic picture it was, of a young woman seeking a dubious affirmation in all the wrong places,” and that this was a “bleak vision of sexual ‘liberation’ that has deprived [feminists] of what was once the moral force of their beliefs.” 

But defining Lewinsky’s reality for her could also have been seen as a form of paternalistic sexism. No one said liberation had to be pretty, or that it would involve making no mistakes.

In any case, it wasn’t necessary to pendulum-swing and turn Lewinsky into a feminist hero; it would have been enough to robustly defend her against the sexism of the media coverage and the cruelty with which she was treated. (One of endless examples: according to journalist Laura Flanders, Fox News polled viewers with the following question: “Is Monica Lewinsky an ‘average girl’ or a ‘young tramp’?”)

In her Vanity Fair article, Lewinsky says she shudders to think what her predicament would have been if social media and Internet news had existed back then with the velocity and ferocity of today. But she would have had one advantage: A less cramped feminist discourse, one that isn’t solely occupied by either leaders of organizations that wanted access to the White House or writers who were most interested in professing their own sexual liberation. The sphere of discourse on social media isn’t perfect, but it has made the conversation more cacophonous, more accountable, and populated it with more diverse voices than the mostly white, upper-middle-class Baby Boomer women who were called upon to speak for feminism then. And the contours of that discussion are less beholden than ever to platforms like Sunday morning news shows or New York Times op-ed pages.

Lewinsky did not have much to say at the time about Hillary Clinton. “The First Lady was, for Monica, a marginal figure," Morton wrote in 1999. According to the book, she also told Bill Clinton of his wife, “I don’t doubt that you have a deep bond, but to me I think she has cold eyes. You seem to need so much nurturing… I think you deserve it.”

Lewinsky says a little more in Vanity Fair, bristling at the former first lady calling her a "narcissistic loony toon" in the late 1990s, according to Clinton's friend's recently unearthed archive.  "I find her impulse to blame the Woman -- not only me, but herself -- troubling," Lewinsky writes. 

And yet Lewinsky devotes far more time in the piece to Hillary Clinton and feminists than she does to Bill Clinton, his staff, and the investigators who dragged her into the spotlight. Of Bill Clinton, she writes, "Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat to protect his powerful position.” 

At the time, White House staffers were anonymously among the chief Lewinsky slut-shamers. But that was nothing compared to what was to come. In Monica's Story, she describes herself as being victimized chiefly by Independent Counsel Ken Starr and the FBI -- from holding Lewinsky hostage without her lawyer to mercilessly publicizing her every intimate moment, to forcing her family and friends to testify against her in an effort to trap the president.  She repeatedly compares her treatment at the hands of the investigators and after the Starr Report to rape: “I had been emotionally raped,” and “I felt very violated. I really felt raped and physically ill." 

Of the impeachment proceedings, Lewinsky said then, “Our tabloid TV has now spawned tabloid government,” a remark that remains relevant in a time of ongoing, partisan-inflected investigations. None of this, of course, exonerates the conflicted and at times unfair responses of many self-described feminists. But it does put this in proportion.

All of it gets less time in the Vanity Fair essay, though. The media and government treating a young woman with ruthless unfairness? That’s old news.