Hillary, Bill and me: on growing up in the shadow of Monica Lewinsky
Young women do understand the significance of the former secretary of state’s candidacy – but it’s the demonization of a guileless intern that has one writer reflecting on the Democrat’s complacency when misogyny hit close to home
Jean Hannah Edelstein
Sunday 21 February 2016 13.00 GMT
|‘Who among us, when confronted by infidelity, has not felt the urge to place the blame on the guilty party who is not our partner?’ Photograph: Vin Ganapathy for The Guardian|
Bill Clinton taught me about blow jobs. Indirectly, but: in early 1998, 16 years old, I lived in a sleepy semi-rural suburb in upstate New York, where I spent a lot of time reading mid-20th century British novels. My parents discouraged me from watching R-rated movies, we did not have cable television, and I hung out with a crew of girls who were, by and large, very good at math.
In our somewhat-enlightened public high school, abstinence was not the only birth control on the curriculum, but we weren’t encouraged to trust in the alternatives. Some mornings as I’d walk to class, I’d pass members of the Christian extracurricular club, praying in a circle around the flagpole.
I had a vague awareness of the existence of the act; I’m sure I’d come across a reference in a movie or an episode of Friends. But oral sex was far from the top of my mind, until all at once it was all that the nation was talking about. When Bill Clinton declared that he “had not had sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky”, I was perplexed: if what she’d done under his desk wasn’t sex, what exactly was it?
My access to the internet was limited, and my mother succeeded to some extent in concealing the issues of Newsweek with the most salacious details, but as the media became engorged with the story, I started to get the jokes. I heard the song lyrics referring to oral sex: Alanis Morrisette and Jay Z, and also Leonard Cohen.
I understood what men were shouting at me when I walked past them in shopping mall parking lots. Awarded a rich leather-bound dictionary by my school for my achievements in English class, I looked up the first unfamiliar word that I came across in an EL Doctorow novel: fellatio. Blow jobs were all around.
As Lewinsky recounted in her TED talk about public shaming last year, public opinion about her was less ambiguous than opinions about the nature of the act that she’d performed: “I was branded ... a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, that woman.”
Hillary Clinton did not use that kind of language when she made one of her few recorded remarks about the situation. Instead, she called Lewinsky “a narcissistic loony tune”.
Of course she did. Who among us, when confronted by infidelity, has not felt the urge to place the blame on the guilty party who is not our partner? Hillary Clinton was talking about a woman who had had an affair with her husband and threatened not only to bring down her marriage, but the extraordinary political career that they had crafted together over 20 years. A career that they’d built in spite of the fact that the Bill Clinton had been repeatedly accused of alleged sexual misconduct while in various offices.
Regardless of which side of the aisle you sat regarding Bill Clinton’s subsequent impeachment – the “he’s a scoundrel” side of the aisle or the “he’s good at his job, so whatever!” one – the whole nation agreed that Lewinsky was a disgrace. Hence it’s not surprising that Hillary Clinton agreed. Or that I agreed, too: Lewinsky was disgusting. I would never be that kind of girl. But as the sexual dramatics unfolded each evening on the six o’clock news and I began late-adolescent forays into things that fell short of sexual relations, I privately wondered: if Monica Lewinsky was a slut, what did that make me?
In September 1998, the New York Observer gathered together a group of then-prominent Manhattan women (“New York Supergals Love That Naughty Prez”) to chat about “the only topic anyone talked about all week”. The supergals were overwhelmingly in favour of Bill Clinton, who was “the most incredibly charming man” (fashion designer Nicole Miller) and unimpressed with Lewinsky: “all of my women friends and I would be happy to have sex with Clinton and not talk about it” (writer Patricia Marx) and “Monica Lewinsky’s not that pretty” (writer Katie Roiphe).
I’m not that pretty either. Or at least that’s something that people have often pointed out, moved for some reason or another to share with me their opinion of my value. “When I first met you,” said one boyfriend, “I didn’t think you had a pretty face, but over time I got used to it.” “Why would he do that?” said another, when I complained to him about being groped by a mutual acquaintance. “He has a really hot girlfriend.” “Jean will be beautiful when she’s 40,” a more generous person remarked.
Perhaps this is part of why I was surprised to be the recipient of special attention from a string of (relatively) powerful men when, half a decade or so after Monica’s heyday as the punch line of a joke, I became an intern. Perhaps there’s a certain kind of predatory guy who identifies a certain kind of young woman as more responsive to attention than the one who’s used to turning heads at every corner, or less likely to be believed if she complains.
If you’re not a supermodel, I came to understand, you should be grateful for any kind of sexual attention.
Aiming for a career in journalism, I gained unpaid work placements at one big media company, and then another: fetching coffee and tea, opening the mail, and on thrilling occasions, being allowed to research and write things. The female editors were friendly, breezy, busy, sometimes let doors (literal, figurative) slam in my face. But at every office where I worked, there was always a senior male editor who took a special interest in me. Giving me more weighty assignments than my fellow interns. Asking me about my ambitions. Telling me that I showed real potential. Taking me out for expensive lunches – boozy ones. Hitting me on the thigh with a toy whip as I walked past in the office (the same man told me that I should consider doing a nude photo shoot to further my career as a writer, citing the example of a woman who’d done it some years earlier for Tatler magazine).
Was this standard practice for people on work experience? I had no idea, as I had no one with whom to discuss it: I was scared and mortified. I had no recourse to corporate sexual harassment policies; I wasn’t, after all, a contracted employee. On occasion, I sensed some resentment from some of my fellow interns, who perceived me to be receiving preferential treatment. I suppose that I was, so I couldn’t blame them. And when I ventured to describe what happened to friends, they tended to laugh – being slapped with a sex toy in the middle of an office was ridiculous.
“I got hit with a whip in the office today,” I told one.
“What?” she said.
“The editor had it on his desk,” I said, “I guess someone had sent it to him as a joke. I walked past and he hit me on the thigh. Everyone laughed.”
“What were you wearing?” she said.
After the first two occasions, when the men in question encouraged me to contact them in the future for further help boosting my career, I did not. I was scared of how they would expect me to reciprocate if I accepted their help. After the third occasion, when an editor of a magazine invited me to meet him in his private members’ club to discuss a piece that I’d written for him, only to admit two hours into our “meeting” that he hadn’t read it, I stopped trying to be taken seriously.
I stopped applying for jobs. I stopped pitching ideas. If only, I thought, I had the ability to maintain the impression that I might one day sleep with these men, without actually sleeping with them, I could get somewhere in my career. But I was a writer, not an actor.
“At the age of 22”, said Lewinsky, “I fell in love with my boss.” Fair enough. Maybe she did. But as I struggled to find a path into the career I wanted which didn’t require me to have sexual relations with any middle-aged men, I recognized that my 16-year-old self had been too eager to join in the chorus, casting the weight of blame on her. None of my bosses was the leader of the free world; they were very resistible. But I could see how hard it could be to draw the line. Where would Lewinsky’s career be now if Linda Tripp had not been wearing a wire, if Republicans hadn’t been hellbent on taking down Bill Clinton, if she hadn’t become a punchline? Perhaps she’d be running for president.
“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” former secretary of state Madeleine Albright declared earlier this month, in support of Hillary Clinton’s run, in admonishment of women who are supporters of Bernie Sanders. Albright’s argument: young women don’t understand the significance of Clinton’s candidacy, because we believe all of the work has been done.
Albright must approve of women such as Lena Dunham, whose enthusiastic public support of Clinton has been recorded on a wide range of social media channels even as – as reported in the New York Times – she has been said to share my particular hesitation: “at an Upper East Side dinner party a few months back”, Amy Chozick wrote in January, “Ms Dunham expressed more conflicted feelings. She told the guests (...) that she was disturbed by how, in the 1990s, the Clintons and their allies discredited women who said they had had sexual encounters with or been sexually assaulted by former President Bill Clinton.”
“So where, you might be wondering, were the feminists back then?” Lewinsky wrote in 2014 in Vanity Fair. They were absent, she continues, calculating that a president who had been good for women in terms of policy should not be held to account for his conduct with her.
But feminists are here now. We’re creating a culture where it’s OK for women to speak up about being on the receiving end of misogyny, to push back when they’re being ill-treated or harassed. If a Lewinsky-esque scandal happened today, far more responsibility would be placed on the shoulders of the president, and the uneven power dynamic, and far less on the guileless intern who made, or was coerced into making, a very bad decision.
Asked last year to elucidate on her “loony tunes” remark, Hillary Clinton refused: “I am not going to comment on what I did or did not say back in the late 90s,” she said to Diane Sawyer. And sure, that’s her prerogative, to say nothing. But I think it’s a bad choice. What happened in the 90s happened: it’s a crucial part of the narrative of the Clinton dynasty that has driven Hillary Clinton forward. Hence, it’s my prerogative to feel ambivalent about supporting a candidate who positions herself as a feminist but who has been yielding in her support of a partner who has been a serial ill-user of women – and who, lest we forget, paid $850,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit out of court.
Yet at the same time I can see that Hillary Clinton would not be a likely presidential candidate without having made the decisions that she made in the late 90s. Would any of us have made a different decision? Would any woman, in that political climate, have taken a public stand against the president?
At 16 years old, I would certainly not. But I can recognize the folly of my 1998 opinions. Feminism has evolved dramatically: there is a slow but inexorable shift of power away from men like Bill Clinton and the men who I encountered early in my career. Not all whips are gone from offices, but I haven’t been whipped for a while. And I know that if it happened again, I would have ample support when I chose to strike back.
Women need leaders who acknowledge that. Hillary Clinton and I will have a lot to talk about when we run into each other in that special place in hell.