For reasons I have yet to fully comprehend, I have found myself in the middle of some of the most tumultuous confrontations between politics, sex and power over the last 20 or so years. Early in my career, Monica Lewinsky was my intern in the Clinton White House. I testified in front of independent counsel Ken Starr’s grand jury and fought against Clinton’s impeachment as a deputy press secretary for the White House. I also worked for former presidential candidate John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth, and helped them both manage the press around his extramarital affair. Most recently, I was Hillary Clinton’s communications director in the 2016 presidential campaign. Between Donald Trump’s bragging that he assaulted women on the Access Hollywood tape from 2005, the accusations from more than a dozen women that Trump had sexually harassed or assaulted them and Trump’s own false attacks of Clinton as a “mean enabler” of her husband’s misconduct, the campaign often felt more like a primal battle between the sexes than a political contest. And the women’s side lost.
Judging from the Trump White House’s and Congressional Republicans’ efforts to intimidate the women who have accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, it feels like the women are losing again. In their refusal to have the FBI investigate the charge that Kavanaugh assaulted Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in high school (which Kavanaugh denies), Republicans are treating Dr. Ford with even less deference than they did with Anita Hill 27 years ago. Their reaction to the new sworn declaration by Julie Swetnick, and the demand from her lawyer for an FBI investigation, will be similarly revealing.
For those of us concerned that Kavanaugh could be the vote that undoes Roe v. Wade, the Republicans’ actions are particularly galling: Railroading a woman for the purposes of putting a man on the Supreme Court to control her body. It’s easy for women to believe that the picture looks bleak; the patriarchy, strong.
But viewing today’s turmoil through the lens of my own complicated experiences, I see a slightly brighter picture coming into focus.
I don’t think I could have articulated it this clearly at the time, but with the benefit of 20 years of reflection, I see that Monica Lewinsky was treated as collateral damage in a fight that was all about men and power. Three years after welcoming her as my intern, I watched her become the most famous and ridiculed woman in America. She and her family endured appalling treatment by the federal investigators and prosecutors working for Starr — scooping Lewinsky up in a sting operation and interrogating her for hours without a lawyer and subjecting her mother to similar treatment — all in an effort to hurt President Clinton.
I struggled to make sense of what I saw happen to her. I knew the relationship President Clinton pursued with her was not just inappropriate because he was married, but represented an abuse of the power dynamic. He was President of the United States, and she was a young intern. But while I didn’t then, and do not now, think President Clinton should have been impeached, the Republican men who pursued his removal from office clearly didn’t care about Monica. She was merely a means of taking down their opponent, no matter the costs to any of the lives involved. Her life has never fully recovered.
That dynamic has been played time and again, as political opponents use sex scandals to wound men: The controversies are all about how the man’s behavior reflects on him, not whether the woman involved is hurt.
In the #MeToo era, though, that’s changed. In the cases of Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, former Trump staffer Rob Porter, former Democratic Senator Al Franken and other members of Congress forced to resign in the last year, the charges were brought forward not by competing male politicos, but instead attested to by the women who had been harmed. This is a significant difference. Dr. Ford, Deborah Ramirez and Swetnick are courageously asserting their power and demanding they be heard.
I see progress since the days of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. In the 1990s, Republican men used women as pawns in political fights for power with other men. Today, these men are reduced to using intimidation and shame as a last-ditch method of retaining their power over women — to banking that the woman they seek to control will have the shame they lack and will simply go away.
It will not work.
Some have speculated that Republicans’ treatment of Dr. Ford proved they learned nothing from their poor treatment of Anita Hill. But I think their behavior shows they gained an important lesson: When a woman confronts a man’s attempts to intimidate her, she reclaims the power he is attempting to steal.
The Republicans may have gotten the confirmation they sought in 1991. Clarence Thomas made it to the Supreme Court. But the image of Hill, dignified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, in the face of questions meant to humiliate her, haunts the Senators who interrogated her to this day and helped ignite a wave of enthusiasm that brought a new class of women Senators to Congress. It is not a result they would relish repeating.
And yet despite the Republicans’ refusal to have the FBI investigate the alleged assault, the President’s intimidating tweets and death threats to her and her family, it appears Dr. Ford, and now perhaps Ramirez and Swetnick, will testify. While I know it would be a difficult time for those women, I hope they leave knowing they stared down those who sought to bully and silence them and see it as the victory it is for all women, whether or not Kavanaugh is confirmed.
I admit to having felt shame and confusion in my own career — in being expected to answer for the behavior of men for whom I worked, wondering if it was possible to feel sympathy for all Monica endured without being disloyal to President Clinton and his family, who I thought were also treated unfairly and endured tremendous pain.
Twenty years ago, this confusion and shame manifested itself in a dream I would have where I ran into Monica and not know what to say to her. I would try to speak, and no words would come out.
Last year, that dream came to life when, by chance, I ran into her at an event. I was relieved that 20 years on, I knew what to say to her. I told her that I was sorry. Sorry that she had endured so much trauma. Sorry that simply because she was associated with President Clinton his political enemies allowed her life to become collateral damage in a fight against him.
A path forward for women is clearer to me now than it was decades ago: Refuse to be shamed or held accountable for actions taken by men. Shame is one of the last weapons of the fading patriarchy. But unlike the other means that have been used to keep women down, this one is entirely within our control to defeat.
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