My 13-year-old daughter came to me asking for help. Her classmates were claiming that “it was awful of Hillary and a bad influence on girls” (my daughter’s words) for Hillary to have stayed in her marriage after Bill cheated on her. “Hillary is always talking about women’s rights, but she doesn’t show it; she should ‘stand up for herself.’” We had discussed this topic before, so my daughter felt that something wasn’t quite right about these claims, but she was having trouble articulating why; she needed talking points.
I was just out of college when Bill’s affair with Monica Lewinsky came to light. It was an eye-opening moment for me. Perhaps adulthood means coming to terms with the inherent flaws in humanity: a man of great success and power would put all of that at risk? Even worse, he would wield his power to engage in sexual conquests? Indeed, he would. He did. It was a punch in the gut. I never blamed Monica, and I never blamed Hillary. It was Bill who deserved my anger.
My daughter’s friends are little liberals; what has gone wrong so that they see Hillary as the “awful” one in this situation? These kids are young teenagers, i.e. natural idealists; their eyes have not yet been opened to the ways of the world. They are also tomorrow’s voters. How is it that a wife is blamed for not acting the way others expect following her husband’s infidelities? This line of attack comes right out of Trump’s Twitter feed, wherein the assaulters are heros, and the victims are losers. My burgeoning feminist needed some talking points to help her in the impromptu mini-debates occurring in 8th grade. Here is what I told her:
No one, no one knows what it takes to stay in, fix, and maintain a strong marriage other than the people in it. Some people stay in marriages after infidelity; some people don’t. It’s an individual choice. But there are lots of reasons to stay: your children, your family, the life you built together. Marriage is complicated and messy; that’s why there’s such a high divorce rate. It takes work to stay in a marriage, and it takes forgiveness of all kinds.
As much as you might think you know about the Clintons’ marriage, in truth you know hardly anything at all—about what they gain from their partnership, and about how much they love each other. Who knows what kind of agreement they came to? Two things in this world are true: people have flaws, and people can forgive. It’s the choice of the people in a marriage whether or not to forgive. No one else can make that choice. Forgiveness is an important value, isn’t it? Especially this week, as we observed Yom Kippur.
Women have the right to make their own choices. If your friends believe in women’s rights, then they should support Hillary’s own right to choose how to react to what was a personal matter in her marriage. We have no way of knowing the ways in which Hillary stood up for herself; but leaving Bill is not the only way she could have done so. Hillary chose to stay in her marriage, and so that is the life she clearly wanted. Her choice no one else’s business.
It’s not surprising that the first woman candidate for president would be attacked for her personal life. But we must never blame a woman for what she does after her husband cheats. Blame him; leave her to rebuild her life as best she sees fit.
I explained all of this to my daughter, and then I followed it up with a historical example to which she can relate: consider Eliza Hamilton.