What’s a Feminist to Do?

What’s a Feminist to Do?

by Merle Hoffman

No passionate love letters, no dark night of the soul; just a demand to kiss it — not even to kiss ME.

I have never liked Bill Clinton. I voted for him in 1992 primarily because of the abortion issue.

I remember my revulsion when I learned that, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Governor Clinton flew back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a man so brain-damaged from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head that he asked for his unfinished piece of cake to be left in his cell for him to eat when he returned from his execution. How Clinton handled Bosnia once he became President was another place we parted company — the way he refused to call the mass killings there genocide because that would require an official intervention. I could go on — to all the “reforms,” like health care, welfare, and campaign ethics — but suffice it to say that Bill Clinton is far from being a progressive or a feminist.

I am no naif. I know that politics is the art of compromise, and that, as one major liberal New York political operative told me long ago, “There are no issues, only elections.” And, yes, I have read Machiavelli and can recognize and admire Clinton’s brilliant political manipulations — his enormous strategic empathy and his obvious leadership talents at a technical level; but there is a vast difference between intelligence and wisdom, between intellectual agility and psychological depth. Personally, I cannot relate to his alleged charisma, or experience his legendary charm. While I recognize that many women find he has an erotic appeal (power being an aphrodesiac), I always experience him as transparently exploitive.

Clinton does deserve credit for his continuing support of abortion rights, particularly his two vetoes of “partial birth” abortion bills. The fact that he often acts like a 12-year-old boy, and is alleged to treat a number of individual women with profound disrespect, does not negate the above. What it does negate is any reason to respect him as an individual or as a moral leader.

True political leadership is about more than supporting the appropriate policies and legislative agenda. It is ultimately about defining a broader social meaning within the context of communal values. Moral and visionary leadership should inspire people to be more than the least of their abilities. It should represent courage, loyalty, fortitude, authenticity, honesty, and intellectual integrity.

Where does feminism fit into all this? That depends. Feminism as a vision, as a radical way of defining and redefining the world, depends on judgments, often critical ones. Feminism as realpolitik — as practiced in everyday reality — often has to suspend those judgments. The ideologist asks the question: “Is it good for women?” The politician asks: “Is this the best we can do for women now?” The visionary holds to a higher standard, and takes the longer view.

Feminists may need to practice realpolitik to get the least bad candidate elected and the needed bills vetoed or passed, but feminism — even mainstream feminism — must continually articulate the transformative goals of the movement. To resist critiquing Clinton’s admitted and alleged bad behavior is to lose sight of the critical vision of feminism. And it misses the larger message: By my feminist standards, Bill Clinton has defined leadership down. Moreover, when we judge his actions in purely operational terms, by stretching the distance between the vision and the reality, we are in danger of defining feminism down.

In “Feminists and the Clinton Question,” a masterful display of realpolitik feminism published in The New York Times, Gloria Steinem writes that if all the sexual allegations against Clinton are true, then he may be “a candidate for sex addiction.” She also cites polls that show many Americans believe Clinton is lying, but that there is sympathy for keeping “private behavior private.” Indeed, as of this writing, Clinton’s job approval ratings have never been higher.

This feminist defense of Clinton fails adequately to critique “alleged” egregious, immoral conduct because it is “private,” and/or “has not been proven in a court of law” (as if one can find absolute truth there!), and so should not be judged.

Yes, tolerance and non-judgmentalism are often positioned as the quintessential American virtues. But considering the nuanced definitions of sexual harassment that resulted in the recent dismissal of the Paula Jones suit, and the partisan contamination of the entire situation, it should not be the primary feminist virtue.

I am not arguing for “traditional morality,” or for Presidents to be monks. But it is unrealistic at best, and utterly naive at worst, to think that in this era of media saturation, and given the litigious, adversarial culture of current electoral politics, anyone in a powerful political position can have an authentically private life. Indeed, if the personal is truly political, as the mantra goes, how can feminists of any ideological stripe ignore the issue of presidential “character,” which is the public manifestation of a personal value structure? This is a heavy price for anyone in public office to have to pay, but when one is the leader of the “free world,” I think it should be paid.

Clinton and the defenders of his privacy are like those celebrities whose very existence is dependent on media coverage, yet who rail at the “intrusion” of the press when it is tarnishes their image. There is a wonderful scene in the movie Primary Colors where the candidate Jack Stanton, played by John Travolta, complains that “I just can’t catch a break,” after he’s accused of impregnating a teenage girl. It is classic Clinton: All the troubles, scandals, and difficulties that beset him are caused by others — his enemies, “right-wing conspiracies.” He is just misunderstood!

The Ultimate Bad Boy

Clinton is the golden child of Entitlement — the ultimate bad boy, the lovable rogue, someone who is not responsible for his behavior. And what behavior! There is not even a literary or romantic saving grace to these alleged encounters: No passionate love letters (copies of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass notwithstanding), no dark night of the soul; just a demand to kiss it — not even to kiss me.

Comparing Clinton’s alleged singular “clumsy sexual pass” at Paula Jones with Bob Packwood’s “offensive behavior that was continued for years,” Steinem gives Clinton brownie points because, even after he dropped his pants and asked for oral sex, he accepted no for an answer. Steinem would medicalize Clinton’s problem. If the boy did it, then he must have an addiction. Ergo, he is a victim — unlike Bob Packwood, who, even with his own addiction (alcoholism), remains a predator.

As previously reported in these pages (Winter 1994), in an encounter with then-Senator Packwood, in the middle of Park Avenue, I was the recipient of one of his infamous unrequested and non-consensual tongue kisses. I wrote that, because Packwood had no direct power over me, I “felt no shame or amazement.” Even though I found the attempted kiss annoying, “I still respected the Senator in the morning.”

Realpolitik dictated that I differentiate between the public politician, who was one of the strongest supporters of women’s rights, and the private man, who was a bit of a nerd, somewhat of a boor, and an alcoholic (this last condition ultimately being his public rationale for his outrageous behavior).

But Packwood was a Republican, and although not one woman accusing him of sexual harassment charged him with abusing his power or penalizing her, he was forced to resign his office. At the time, Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women (then as now), declared that whatever good Packwood had done for the women’s movement had to be viewed in the context of asking: “Can we be bought? And if so, how cheap?” (To her credit, Ireland has been one of the few mainstream feminists to speak out against Clinton’s conduct, though not until after the Kathleen Willey appearance on 60 Minutes.)

The reaction to my article was fascinating. Because I asked the question: “How is it that any man could make us feel like a dog, something less than human, just by attempting a boorish pass?” I was castigated for being insensitive, classist, and not sufficiently “feminist.” When Clinton is the issue, however, liberal feminists seem far more willing to cut the man some slack.

Susan Faludi, writing in the New York Observer, sees the issue as a battle between two types of women — the girls and the grown-ups — both of which use the language of feminism, but to different ends. It is a “desperately important battle,” she explains, which will determine “far more then the sexual behavior of Mr. Clinton.”

Faludi separates the two this way: “On the one side we have feminism as channeled through the Spice Girls and Fiona Apple. This is ‘Girl Power,’ which is derived only by celebrating yourself, ideally via your injuries; gaining power by talking about what was done to you.” She defines Girl Power as enforcing the traditional female role of taking no responsibility for yourself. It is by definition a “destructive power aimed at bringing down the bogeyman, by having a sulk ‘n’ sob in front of adults,” she writes. Prime examples of this Girl Power mentality are Clinton’s accusers — Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky.

On the other side, we have what Faludi calls exhibit A: a grown-up — Hillary Rodham Clinton. “If feminism is about anything,” she writes, “it is about women growing up, about becoming mature and equal players in public life.” Mrs. Clinton is an exemplar of the ability to see “what happened to you in proportion” and know “when the public good outweighs your having a temper tantrum in public over a personal offense.”

Mrs. Clinton, Faludi says, embodies the other defining trait of feminism, working for the “sisterhood” as opposed to working for oneself, the way Linda Tripp and Susan Carpenter-McMillan have. Tripp betrayed Lewinsky by taping her, and Carpenter-McMillan, Paula Jones’s adviser, treats Jones “like some dress-up Barbie Doll.” Their crime is not “thinking about freeing women from the stereotyped boxes that traditional society has placed them in.”

In my view, Hillary Clinton is the main actor in that traditional box: Good, dutiful, avenging wife standing by and speaking for her man at all costs, even to the point of smearing the women who have accused him. Her public display of dissociation equals that of Joan Kennedy and Lee Hart.

For Faludi, Hillary Clinton is a grown-up because she refuses to acknowledge that her husband has very publicly and continually, if reports are to be believed, made a fool of her. But let’s face it, Hillary acquired her power the old-fashioned way — she married it. What kind of non-traditional role is that?

The feminist movement always had a great stake in Hillary as a feminist icon, but what is she now? How can we hold her up as a “role model” of a woman who has made her own life, who has put herself on the line for her principles? Rather than doing anything for the sisters, she has transformed herself into that most traditional of women, the most Victorian of examples, the most enabling of partners.

Neither Gallant Gentleman nor Feminist

Bill Clinton has shown no public respect for his wife, and if we are to believe the many accusations still standing against him despite the dismissal of the Paula Jones case, none for individual women. Power partnerships aside, it is one thing to discreetly have a mistress; it is quite another to be unable to keep your pants up, or your hands off, young women who are working for you. This is no gallant gentleman, and certainly no “feminist.” All women become the same woman, objectified into “that woman.”

In a sense, Hillary has positioned herself as the ultimate victim — an intelligent, ambitious political woman who hitched her star to her husband’s trajectory and suffers from his detours. Which makes her, and her marriage, particularly dicey for feminists to support. Her defense of her husband on the Today show — by positioning all charges as examples of a “right-wing conspiracy” — was a masterful performance, as Faludi points out; but was it a feminist one? Maybe in a larger sense it was: She was showing the world that marriage really is what radical feminists have long claimed it was — an economic and security (or power, in the case of Mrs. Clinton) bargain in which the woman is required to look the other way as her husband takes his pleasure outside the relationship. But neither feminists nor anyone else call her behavior dissociated, or see her as someone who has completely sold out, or essentially lives through the public role she has created. Instead, she is viewed as the prime example of responsible, adult feminism. Are feminists grown-up only when they act like good middle-class housewives and ignore or deny infidelity and betrayal in emotionally inauthentic ways?

Faludi claims that “Girl Power is all about women staying in that most traditional of feminine roles: as enforcers of public morality whose power as social conscience derives directly from their political powerlessness.” According to that definition, Hillary is a girl through and through, not a woman.

Let me make a disclosure here. Although currently living separately from my spouse, I am married, and I would absolutely agree with Mrs. Clinton when she says that “the only people who count in any marriage are the two that are in it.” I know firsthand about loyalty, betrayal, jealousy, emotional bargaining, and personal compromise for the “good of the relationship.”

But when a marriage involves two public figures, and when those two are the President and the First Lady, then the marriage counts for something more. It becomes a metaphor of the family, the First Family, a.k.a. the royal family, and it is through this couple and their relationship with each other and with the country that we come to define an idealized set of American values. Behavior within that marriage is not private. It spills out and affects everyone. Witness the orgy of public and media attention to events at the White House.

Americans yearn to have a royal family. In its place, we have created the “National Entertainment State” out of the Washington/Hollywood Celebrity Axis — though ironically, there may be more authenticity in the British aristocracy than in our first families. After all, Edward VIII gave up the throne to “marry the woman I love,” and Princess Di walked out of the palace to find a more authentic existence.

I am not asking Bill to resign to marry the woman he loves. It appears he loves nothing but power and no one but himself. The constitution doesn’t consider unregulated erections an impeachable crime. But feminists should call it as it is. If feminism is to count for anything beyond a mere interest group, we must vigilantly guard its vision. We cannot bend it to compromise, or change direction in response to popularity polls. Our standards should be raised even higher for those in public life who would carry our banner or espouse our principles. Acknowledging that some of Bill Clinton’s policies have been good for some women does not require feminists to close their eyes, to become apologists, to find excuses for, or redefine, outrageous behavior.

Indeed, because the women’s vote was instrumental in Clinton’s victories, Clinton should be held to an even higher standard in both personal and political behavior.

Clinton owes women. He owes us big. And payment comes not only in vetoes, or in electoral or legislative coin. He must articulate the vision in his everyday life. He must understand that the personal is the political.

And that is the real realpolitik of feminism.

MERLE HOFFMAN is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc. and Choices Mental Health Center.