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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
POLITICS

*This piece was originally published in The Nation, December 21, 1998

 

In Defense of Monica

by Amelia Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner

Pundits across the political spectrum have assumed that there are two ways for feminist-minded people to view Monica Lewinsky: As a careerist Delilah (who exposed the President to humiliation) or as a victim (to whom the President exposed himself). As feminists and activists committed to fighting for the rights of young women, we want to raise our voices not to decry or condescend to her but to support her in the name of feminism.

When the Lewinsky story broke eleven months ago, we did not know the former White House intern and initially learned only scant details of her alleged tryst with President Clinton. Now, she could be our best girlfriend. We know her wardrobe down to her undies, her vacillating aspirations and the intimate details of her sex life. We also know more than enough explicit play-by-play (more than any best girlfriend would reveal) about her relationship with the President. But then none of our best girlfriends have been threatened with imprisonment or had her mother subpoenaed and threatened with the slammer if such details were not laid out before the world. With so much information, we feel comfortable coming out in support of Lewinsky despite never having met her.

As far as classic feminist concerns go, Lewinsky has been exploited - but not in the way some of her detractors suggest. Linda Tripp violated her privacy and trust, and she has been ridiculed by the media and by the American people. The independent counsel and FBI agents ambushed her for an eleven-hour intimidation ritual, with nary a pause when she said she wanted to call her lawyer (as if constitutional rights donít extend to people who donít know precisely what their rights are). Then she was served up most salaciously by Kenneth Starr in his report - now for sale in book form. Although she will soon have her own book in the stores, one canít argue that her literary relationship with Starr is consensual. The Barbara Walters interview, scheduled for broadcast early next year, will mark the first time Monica speaks for herself, at least without the threat of jailtime hanging over her head. Many people donít agree with the choice Lewinsky made to have an affair with the President of the United States, a decision that left her subject to public humiliation. Yet the point is not that we think her choice was stupid or her motives delusional but that the relationship was consensual. At the root of feminism is the right to make our own choices, provided our actions donít limit or infringe upon the options of other people. Take abortion: While we would not coerce any woman into having one, we also wouldnít deny that alternative to someone else. And with freedom comes the possibility that we will make bad choices.

If Monica Lewinsky were in fact a best girlfriend, it would be our responsibility as friends to offer an opinion. Maybe you shouldnít be having an affair with a married man; maybe, given his age and job as leader of the most powerful nation on earth, he isnít going to be available as often as you need him to be; maybe you shouldnít be threatening him if he doesnít aid in your future career; and maybe you should have had that dress dry-cleaned. However, we donít need to defend Lewinskyís decisions or justify her love to support her rights in the name of the rights of all young women. We want the right to be sexually active without the presumption that we were used or duped. We want the right to determine our own choices based on our own morality.

Young people should be particularly empathetic with Lewinsky. We know what itís like not to be listened to and to have our ideas dismissed. As a constituency, we fight to be heard by our parents, our teachers and our politicians. In our careers we struggle to do more than operate the photocopier, and in our personal lives we strive to live according to our own moral voice and not that of others. We are also familiar with the linking of sex, lies and tapes. We are a generation whose parents openly had affairs, who have been lied to by Reagan and Bush, and for whom a media-delivered barrage of sex and scandal has been a constant.

Tossed into this national peepshow, the figure of Monica Lewinsky has taken on the singularity of the very famous. But in some respects her experience as a young woman was not that weird. Who hasn't dated someone less than in love with you, or what the experts call "emotionally unavailable"? We feminists should take care not to put words in Lewinskyís mouth: She has not said that Clinton "victimized" her nor that it was a power difference that forced her to express her crush and flash her thong. She has said that she had an affair with the President, and that she initiated and did her best to prolong this affair. The effect of his presidential authority was not coercive but seductive - the aphrodisiac of power. Whatever we think of this, if feminists hold Lewinsky up as a violated naif, then we don't believe that an adult woman can take responsibility for her own desires and actions. In other words, we will have gone a long way back, baby. Feminists should support Monica Lewinsky not as a victim of a rapacious man but as a young woman with a libido of her own.

Amelia Richards, a contributing editor to Ms. Magazine, a co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, and writer of the column Ask Amy, and Jennifer Baumgardner, a writer and editor, co-wrote the book Manifesta, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000).

 

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