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The Week Feminists Got Laryngitis

5 minute read
Barbara Ehrenreich

It was the week that Gloria Steinem got laryngitis. Other feminists, however, will have a harder time explaining their stammering and mostly inaudible performance during Week I of Presidential Sex Crisis III. Patricia Schroeder and Bella Abzug came up with tortured, self-canceling meditations on sexual harassment vs. good, wholesome, consensual sexual relationships. The National Organization for Women issued a touching call for public officials to pledge they would reject “the aphrodisiac of power” and forswear sexual contact with their office help. Apparently no one had explained to the team at NOW that the very essence of adultery is the breaking of pledges once made in good faith to nice, trusting women like themselves.

The sorriest performance, though, was that of Hillary Clinton. Widely regarded as our First Feminist, she spent last week singing Tammy Wynette’s tune on all the morning soft-news shows, hoping to convince us that the only problem Bill has is the right-wing conspiracy to destroy him. Someone needs to tell this woman that the first time a wife stands up for an allegedly adulterous husband, everyone thinks she’s a saint. The second or third time, though, she begins to look disturbingly complicit.

Well, the time may have come, sisters, to cut Bill Clinton loose. It could still turn out, of course, that the whole thing was completely innocent, and that Bill was using those late-night visits to tutor Monica Lewinsky on the intricacies of Social Security financing and line-item budgeting. And it may well be, as Kathleen Parker observed in USA Today, that the alleged objects of the President’s affections are not exactly feminist role models but “our worst stereotypes incarnate: emotional, back-stabbing, duplicitous, manipulative.”

But even if no harassment was involved in the most recent case or if Monica was a kind of harasser herself–inflating her bond to the President in order to have something to boast about to her Pentagon pals–feminists have plenty of reasons to be incensed about the gender dynamics of the Clinton White House. We’re talking about a workplace where any young woman with a sufficiently tartlike demeanor could reportedly enjoy the President’s precious attentions, along with the career-counseling services of his closest friends. Meanwhile, who pays attention to all the other, harder-working and no doubt more productive interns whose hair is short and necklines are high? The feminist idea, as I understood it, was that we go to work to get a job done, and unless that job is lap dancing, it’s an insult to be judged by one’s body parts and willingness to share them with others.

All right, it would hurt to toss the most steadfastly pro-choice President we’ve ever had–the fellow who appointed Madeleine Albright and Ruth Bader Ginsburg–just because he might have a little problem keeping his fly zipped up. However, Bob Packwood was also pro-choice and, on some lofty level, no doubt pro-woman. And the point still came when you had to say yuck.

In Bill Clinton’s case, feminists should have passed that point long ago–say, in 1993, when Paula Jones surfaced with her sexual-harassment charge. Organized feminism lost valuable moral capital when it appeared to blow off Jones as a right-wing operative or conniving tramp. If sexual harassment is a crime–and it was feminists who fought to make it one–then it’s just as much a crime when nice-guy Democrats do it to right-leaning women with the wrong kind of hair. Or surely the yuck factor should have clicked in by 1997, when Bob Bennett, the President’s lawyer, threatened to drag Jones’ sexual history into her harassment case–ignoring the central feminist principle that even sluts have rights. And anyone who doesn’t believe that the President himself could go along with such a low-life legal strategy should replay his denials last Monday, when he coldly referred to his former hugging partner and fellow poetry fan as “that woman.”

Then there’s the larger question of whether this President ever really earned the forbearance of America’s feminists. In 1996, over the protests of feminists, including NOW, he signed a welfare-reform bill that, among many other regrettable things, insults the poor by providing millions for “chastity education.” A President who snatches alms from impoverished moms while consigning their libidos to cold showers and prayer meetings, arguably deserves whatever torments await him as punishment for his own sexual derelictions.

So here’s what organized feminism should do: issue a public statement in the form of an open letter to the First Lady–or, as they would say in a more openly polygamous society, First Wife. “Dear Hillary,” it should read, “If there’s one thing we’ve learned from our own years of codependence on Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party, it’s that women are ultimately going to have to rely on themselves.”

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