Rebecca Traister, who wrote Big Girls Don’t Cry, the single best book about the 2008 Democratic primary contest, has written about Monica Lewinsky’s essay in Vanity Fair, and has supersmart things to say about our tendency to cherchez les femmes instead of placing the blame for men’s poor behavior where it belongs–on the men. Instead of antagonists, she writes, Lewinsky and Hillary Clinton are doppelgangers:
In the fervid investigation and coverage of it, both women got hammered—as slutty and frigid, overweight and ugly, dumb and monstrous. They each became cartoons of dismissible femininity—the sexually defined naïf and the calculating, sexless aggressor, characters who illustrated the ways that sex—sex that’s had by men as well—always redounds negatively on women. These two women weren’t at odds; they were in it together.
. . . . .
The reason that, no matter what they do, neither woman can ever shake this old story is that it is never-ending; and it is important. It is the story of women in the United States: marginalized, sexualized, and pitted against each other since time began in an attempt to keep them at the fringes of a power structure and very far from the top of it.
Go read the whole thing. (Why isn’t this woman a staff writer at a legacy magazine like The New Republic, The Nation, or The New Yorker? I sure as $hit would rather read her than Adam “let me
sell tell you about my adorably precocious children” Gopnik, or some of the other very predictable writers at those publications.) Traister takes us down memory lane to remind us that it was feminists too who played a large part in piling on Lewinsky in particular, although Clinton suffered a backlash in 2008 when many feminists defected to back Barack Obama in the Dem primary–allegedly because of their disgust at the way Clinton dealt with news of her husband’s affair with Lewinsky.
Something kind of shocking to me is to be reminded of the fact that Lewinsky is 40 now, only five years younger than me. At the time she became national news, I remember thinking that part of the problem with the face of feminism fifteen years ago was that it didn’t include more women closer to Lewinsky’s age, and that it was mostly composed of women closer to Clinton’s age. Feminists my age were much more sensitive to the power dynamics at play, but most bourgeois feminists with some kind of public identity as feminists appeared to identify with Clinton, and not with Lewinsky. I remember thinking that Lewinsky wasn’t a victim of sexual predation, but that she was surely a victim of media, political, and public prurience since the exposure of the affair, and that she was far less protected or equipped to deal with it than the Clinton family.
16 thoughts on ““Marginalized, sexualized, and pitted against each other since time began””
Good post. And that other intern from the same approximate era, Chandra Levy, whose disappearance and subsequent discovery as a murder victim was reflexively assumed to be the tip of an iceberg of personal decisions that led back to circumstances of sexual impropriety and youthful naievete on her part. Until the facts as alleged and proved in court about a decade later indicated otherwise. I’m sure many more cases that could be listed here. There was also a media-defined “crazy aunt” in that story if I’m remembering through the mists of time.
I was torn– on the one hand, Monica Lewinsky was older than I was, so surely she was an adult capable of making her own decisions. On the other hand, he was her boss, and that’s just wrong. Even ignoring the adultery part.
Now I am much more of the, she was an intern, he was a boss. He is completely culpable and she was a victim of predation. (I still think he was an amazing president. Just not a good boss. An HR problem.)
Accepting the women’s perspective, there still are two other vista points.
Politically, the media and the fake left are resuming the war on Hillary and the Clintons. 2008 is back. Feminists that voted for Obama, my vista, succumbed to Obama’s personality cult. They have proven to be disastrously misguided.
In everyday life, women and men get together under easy or trying conditions. The sun rises in the morning and sex at the workplace will not be affected by climate change.
“Clinton suffered a backlash in 2008 when many feminists defected to back Barack Obama in the Dem primary–allegedly because of their disgust at the way Clinton dealt with news of her husband’s affair with Lewinsky.”
I think that is way oversold, and no significant number of anyone shifted from Clinton to Obama based on how Clinton handled the Lewinsky situation. This is just ratfucking lies pushed forward by Republican operatives. No significant number of Democratic voters in 2008 were thinking about Bill Clinton and Lewinsky. Try not to be so credulous.
Maybe that didn’t move feminist voters, but it was absolutely a part of the conversation about Clinton by prominent feminists back in the day.
But why should anyone trust me? I’m just a historian. (See also Traister’s book if you don’t believe me.)
Accepting the women’s perspective, there still are two other vista points.
Discounting women’s actual experiences of and perspectives on these events as being a “women’s perspective” is part of the problem. If you can’t call Bill Clinton out when he did something wrong, you are a blind follower, not a thinking supporter of his politics and policies.
Respectful and equal relationships can develop in the workplace. So can abusive ones. What possible motivation could a person have to ignore that? “Sex at the workplace”, “what happens between consenting adults”, etc., etc., etc. Excuse me while I puke and die. These are excuses people make to get away with ignoring the ways in which the bodies of women are understood to be available to and for relatively more powerful men in the workplace.
Yeah, I know about that “conversation”. There is no way it moved a significant number of primary voters from Clinton to Obama. And Republican ratfuckers loved it, because they were more afraid of Clinton than Obama.
I have to say my memory of the events is closer to CP’s. (A certain amount of Oh-yech-stop-the-stand-by-your-man-crap at the time. That feeling not actually changing any votes in 2008.) But I am not a historian so you really can’t trust me. Sample size is just me, the media I saw/read, and some friends. Plus it’s all filtered through angry memories. 😦
I should have made my point clearer, which was addressing Traister’s point about Lewinsky’s point about Lewinsky’s abandonment by **prominent** feminists. As Traister points out, that’s what happened in the Dem primary wars of 2007-08 to Clinton too. All kinds of prominent feminists wrote weird things about Clinton & ended up supporting Obama. I don’t know who the majority of self-identified feminists voted for in the Dem primary b/c I’ve never seen any attempts to uncover that data.
If you read Traister’s article, as I have suggested, she makes this point very clearly, as she did in her book.
Does anybody actually listen to “prominent feminists”? What makes a feminist prominent anyway?
The only ones I can think of as “prominent feminists” off the top of my head are Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and maybe Marlo Thomas (though Alan Alda is probably more prominent). I don’t remember if they said anything. I can’t find a table of contents to that book, but I do see from an amazon review that Judith Warner is one of the thirty writers– she may be prominent, but I’m not so sure about “feminist.” Maybe for some non-standard definition of feminist.
My memory is also the same as CPP’s. People around me said really nasty sexist things about Hilary Clinton, but they were to a person, Republicans. (The democrats in my red state were THRILLED we had two such amazing candidates to choose from and for the most part didn’t care which won. I picked Obama as a pragmatist, but in retrospect should have picked H. Clinton because I didn’t realize how much opposition he’d get trying to get anything done. And the bad guys being more racist than they are sexist is a really bad reason to not vote for someone anyway.)
The real “feminist” memories I have of that election were from the right all of a sudden calling anti-feminism on Sarah Palin’s portrayal. (And they had a point, but the irony, oh the irony.)
I guess many of you missed the viciously unfair advocacy of magazines like The Nation in 2007 and 2008. They were shilling for Obama from the start, motivated by what I see as a troubling and characteristic misogyny on the left.
I read prominent feminists when important magazines and newspapers publish their work. By “prominent feminist” I mean intellectual and political leaders, not movie or teevee celebrities like Fonda & Thomas. Gloria Steinem was an early Clinton supporter who took a lot of flack for her position from a lot of other feminists (including me!)
I wrote about the awful things that so-called liberal or leftist women wrote about Clinton at the time. Anyone should start at June 2008 in my archives and go backwards from there. For example, Katha Pollitt was a prominent feminist who wrote a famously weird article about why she wasn’t supporting Hillary Clinton in the ’08 primary.
I wrote about this a lot back then because I find misogyny troubling on the left as well as the right. I think it’s almost worse on the left when we find it, because some liberals also claim to support feminist values. That’s not a claim we see on the right at all. The point that nicoleandmaggie makes about the misogyny directed at Palin from the left is an important one. Just look up what I had to say about that from August through November 2008.
Oh, prominent feminists. Except Steinem, I’ve pretty much done a memory dump about them, so I couldn’t tell you who they were either. But I remember too clearly the feeling of betrayal when the few feminists with loud bullhorns supported the cool guy instead of the woman who “couldn’t win.”
(No, sorry, didn’t read original article. :embarrassed:)
“Prominent feminists” might be a somewhat unstable, albeit important, category for analysis, but–without time now to go back to the blog archive–I’m remembering the tone and substance of the 2008 posts and commentary the same way Historiann is. Who knows exactly what was driving it, but there was an almost frenzied drift toward the “cool guy” with the crowd-sourced aura of inevitability. “Cool” had a lot of layers of meaning, it turned out, which unlayered themselves ever after.
In the “Ready for Hillary” category, my 2008 poster is still high up in my office window. Mainly because I’ve never been as willing to risk my neck to take it down as I was to put it up in the fevered April of 2008. But
it’s there; disclosed by the falling leaves every fall, and covered by new ones every spring. Unfortunately, the building itself may under demolition by spring 2016.
I know, from my own experience, that when you’re twenty and have a relationship with a man in a power relationship over you, that power is both part of the attraction, and something that you try to deny. (“It’s consensual, we really care about each other.”) What intrigues me is that twenty years later, Lewinsky is still there; she’s angry with everyone else, but not Bill Clinton. Melissa Harris-Perry criticizes Clinton at the time for not speaking up for Lewinsky (which would have been, let’s face it, much more grown up than most of us would be); I think the same goes for Lewinsky now: she could call Bill out, not the woman who was publicly humiliated by her. So Lewinsky is the one pitting herself against Hillary now, when she could have changed the discussion.
I stayed largely out of the MSM in 2008, so missed lots of the misogyny. My practical experience was more like nicoleandmaggie’s: I was part of lots of discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of Obama and Clinton, but more or less happy with both. Ironically, given what’s happened, one of the concerns I had with Hillary was the world of Clinton haters, and how it would affect her ability to act. Little did I know the birthers were coming…
I remember that primary as containing for more serious conversations than I’d ever had with other voters about how to make the decision. I’d started out an Edwards supporter, for his good labor relations, then oy, not such good feminist relations. I remember reading a lot of pearl-clutchy “how could he have betrayed me” from local male pols and it made me sick, all of it. The “private life is not relevant” apologists were just as bad.That’s right dude, his affair was all about you.
“Feminists that voted for Obama, my vista, succumbed to Obama’s personality cult.”
I have to say that as a black woman who voted for Obama, I find that particular quote troubling, to put it politely.* It assumes that voting for Clinton rather than Obama in the 2008 primaries was THE feminist position. I’ll be d@!*$ed (to be less polite) if I have my feminism challenged because of that particular political choice. I have no problem saying (although I admit I feel in this instance almost compelled to do so) that the reality of the Obama presidency pales in comparison to the promise of it, but I fail to see how a Clinton presidency would have been more successful. The opposition to President Obama has been unrelenting and often vile. Do you honestly think it would have been any less so, on either front, for Hillary Clinton? Rush Limbaugh and his ilk owe their millions, at least in part, to her.
As for other comments about feminists’ treatment of Hillary Clinton, I remember distinctly feeling incredibly disappointed at the lack of prominent feminists coming to Michelle Obama’s aid when she was being attacked (some of those attacks were also vile) during the 2008 campaign.** Michelle Obama wasn’t a candidate, while Hillary Clinton was, but that distinction shouldn’t stop anyone committed to feminism who has a platform.
* Yes, I am assuming the person who wrote that comment is not a person of color. The issue of so called “racial solidarity” versus “female/women’s solidarity” was a big one during the 2008 campaign.
** Please correct me if I’m misremembering.