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The President and the Feminists
In 1991, during his hearings for nomination to the Supreme Court, Clarence homes was subjected to an inquisition before the entire world without benefit of due process. His alleged offense was having made ribald remarks on various occasions to Anita Hill some eight years earlier at a time when he was her superior, first at the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Education and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This alleged behavior, which Thomas stoutly denied, was portrayed as horrifying abuse, crushing beyond comprehension and fully necessitating the assault on common fairness and decency that he was made to suffer. And yet, a few years later, when one woman after another made credible allegations against President Clinton of behavior far worse than what Hill had alleged of Thomas--of gross indecency, intimate touching, veiled threats, misuse of power, and even rape--the charges were excused, dismissed, ridiculed, and ignored by feminists, sometimes by the same feminists who had supported Hill's accusations against Thomas.
If the attack on Clinton was politically motivated, as his defenders claimed, so was the attack on Thomas. With that point balanced out, we were still left with the starkness of the double standard on the part of the feminists, who not only conspicuously failed to show the livid white hot indignation they had displayed against Thomas, but who also did everything in their considerable power to defend Clinton, shamelessly abandoning all of their supposed principles regarding sexual misconduct in the process.
For example, there was the case of Kathleen Willey, the former Clinton campaign supporter who described in shocking detail how Clinton had groped her in a room near the Oval Office when she came to him for help in finding a job. Soon after Willey's nationally televised interview on Sixty Minutes, Gloria Steinem decreed that fondling a woman is not harassment if the man stops when the woman says "no." What came to be called the one-grope rule directly contradicted the previous feminist argument that to excuse even a one-time advance was "closing ranks with the abuser," in Janet Malcolm's words.(1) Then there was Juanita Broaddrick, who in another, highly detailed nationally televised interview with Lisa Meyers on NBC-TV said that Bill Clinton raped her in a Little Rock hotel room when he was Attorney General of Arkansas in the late seventies. Far from coming to Broaddrick's side or even making anything of her accusations, feminists protested at the amount of time that had elapsed since the alleged rape and at the lack of hard evidence. They conveniently forgot that the sexual misconduct charges that drove Robert Packwood out of the Senate in 1993-94 included incidents that had occurred as much as 25 years previously. They also suspended their past insistence, which they had screamed to the heavens during the Hill-Thomas hearings, that "women don't lie" about such things.
The women who came forward or, as with Willey and Broaddrick, were forced forward in the Clinton scandals were often smeared and ridiculed by the media and by Clinton supporters in the very manner feminists deplore. Yet the feminists stood silently by, offered muted protest at best, or even joined in the ridicule. Paula Jones, the former Arkansas state employee who sued Clinton for exposing himself and making physical advances to her in a Little Rock hotel suite when he was governor, was subject to mockery for her looks and background, and denigrated as "trailer-park trash." The president himself sought to destroy the reputation and credibility of Monica Lewinsky, the young intern from whom he had received oral sex in the White House, by spreading the fake story that she had stalked and threatened him. At the prompting of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the White House discredited Kathleen Willey immediately after her CBS interview by publicizing the friendly letters she had written to the president, still in hopes of a job, after the incident near the Oval Office.
The feminists' response to Willey's letters was radically different from the excuses they had made for Hill over her continuing friendly relationship with Thomas after his alleged offensive behavior. In the case of Hill they had insisted that for the sake of her career an abused woman will feel compelled to stay in contact with the powerful man who has abused her. This would actually have been easier to believe in the case of Willey, whose husband committed suicide over financial matters the very day she went to see the president and who genuinely needed a job, than it was of Hill, who followed Thomas to his new position at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission despite the fact that her DOE job was secure.(2) In addition, so fearful was Willey that the president might view any follow-up letters from her as a threat that she asked a lawyer how to phrase them. Willey's conduct thus suggests that the president's alleged actions produced in her exactly the kind of fear and confusion that feminists say is among the effects of sexual harassment, yet the feminists, so far from pointing this out, let Willey twist in the wind while the White House and media attacked her credibility.
In other ways, too, feminists hastily revised their principles for the sake of Clinton. Hill's allegations of racy talk alone had been portrayed as a punishing, soul-quenching gauntlet that she had barely managed to survive. Yet when it came to Paula Jones's allegations that Governor Clinton had summoned her to his hotel suite during a state convention at which she was employed, dropped his trousers, and commanded her to kiss his penis, the feminists suddenly turned into streetwise babes who could go Mae West one better. "So what?" Betty Friedan shrugged, "What's the big deal? She wasn't killed. She wasn't harassed. She wasn't fired." "Womanizing," in or even apart from the workplace, had previously been a deadly serious matter to feminists, carrying "an implied denigration of women," as Friedan had declared regarding presidential hopeful Gary Hart's consensual extra-marital affair in 1987. Ellen Goodman had observed of the Hart affair that the "slogan of the women's movement--the personal is political--has become a common sensibility. We are.... less willing to accept a character that is split between public and private life." But in the case of Clinton's behavior, after some feeble protest at the inappropriateness of the Lewinsky assignations, feminists concluded that it was "just about sex," a matter of his "private life," and not relevant to "how he does his job."
Yes, they who had always insisted that the personal is political …