In her already widely dissected 4,300 word Vanity Fair essay, Monica Lewinsky takes aim at the feminists of the late 90s.
She says she found no support from the women’s rights crowd back then, and when they did respond to the situation she appeared either as a punch line or a scapegoat. No one seemed to think much about whether she was exploited, or about the undeniable double-standard at play. Bill Clinton emerged, after a few bumps and bruises, a rock star; Lewinsky, a scarlet-letter branded harlot who still struggles to get work today.
When the asked whether the scandal might have been affecting Gore’s run for presidency, the ever-tactful Betty Friedan told the Los Angeles Times:
What is that? I can’t stand the way you media people just trivialize everything. It’s the campaign for the president of the United States… . What is your concern with some little twerp named Monica? What has she got to do with the presidential election? That just disgusts me.
Barbara Ehrenreich called the aftermath of the scandal “The Week Feminists Got Laryngitis.”
Others, like Maureen Dowd painted her as a looney bimbo, and others like Erica Jong and Katie Roiphe (who doesn’t have the tidiest of a feminist record herself) also didn’t have much in the way of words of support for her, all the while they gushed about adorable Bill.
No wonder then that Lewinsky says she doesn’t feel much affinity for the movement. She writes:
I still have deep respect for feminism and am thankful for the great strides the movement has made in advancing women’s rights over the past decades. But, given my experience of being passed around like gender-politics cocktail food, I don’t identify myself as a Feminist, capital F. The movement’s leaders failed in articulating a position that was not essentially anti-woman during the witch hunt of 1998. In the case of the New York Supergals, it should not have been that hard for them to swoon over the president without attacking and shaming me. Instead, they joined the humiliation derby.
I can’t blame Lewinsky for feeling this sense of betrayal. I would likely feel the same way myself if some of the most high-profile women in the country stopped treating me like a person, and more like a minor player in a Shakespearean tragedy. Well it was a tragedy for her, for Clinton the final act revealed itself to be a comedy of errors.
But a lot has changed within the feminist movement since then. Thanks to the democratizing power of the feminist blogosphere, the days of capital “F” feminism is slipping away, and in its place is a lowercase version that is not dominated by a select handful of voice. The carefully insulated echo chamber has been undone by a chorus, many of whom write often about slut-shaming, or the inevitable putting the onus on women for any and all sexual indiscretions.
Lewinsky need only do the most cursory of searches today to discover the highly nuanced and sensitive discussion that has taken place this week. Monica Lewinsky might have given up on feminists, but she will soon discover that we did not give up on her.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.
Should Monica Lewinsky Be Mad at Feminists?