In these enlightened times, sexual relations between powerful 51-year-old executives of the male persuasion and vulnerable 21-year-old interns of the female gender are regarded, with justification, as a form of sexual harassment. Such relations, we are instructed, cannot be considered simply as the private business of two consenting adults, but must be viewed through the lens of power. The 51-year-old male executive has it; the 21-year-old female intern doesn’t. Consent, in such circumstances, is well-nigh impossible.
If Bill Clinton, powerful executive, has been consorting with White House aides young, impressionable and female, he is a far greater scoundrel than former Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, who was last seen warding off the censorious brickbats of outraged progressive thinkers. Mr. Packwood lost his job because he was a serial kisser and occasional (and apparently unsuccessful) propositioner-child’s play, it would appear, in the Clinton White House.
If Bill Clinton has been using the Presidency as a great way to meet chicks, he is guilty of villainy far worse than anything flung in Clarence Thomas’ face in the fall of 1991. And Mr. Thomas, as we know, nearly didn’t get his lifetime appointment to the nation’s most selective club, on grounds that he is alleged to have made crude references in mixed company.
These are interesting times for the feminist wing of the Democratic Party, which is faced with a considerable moral dilemma. After all, no faction was more enthusiastic about Bill Clinton than the Manhattan-Hollywood-Beltway feminists who viewed the man from Arkansas as a friend of the women’s movement. He said all the right things about pay equity and career opportunities, and, in fact, he was married to a strong, independent woman who personified the liberating spirit of the feminist revolution. More than anything else, he defended legalized abortion: “Safe, legal and rare,” were his words at the Democratic National Convention in 1992. (The use of the word “rare” was understood to be a regrettable political tip of the cap to pro-choicers with weak knees and jellied spines.) After a quarter-century of Republican knuckle-dragging patriarchs and their retro wives, feminists had one-nay, two-nay, four (!) of their own in national office.
In his public life, Mr. Clinton has been conspicuously faithful to his women, although some of the single mothers tossed off welfare thanks to the President’s “reforms” might feel betrayed. His ardor is so complete that he put aside his misgivings and vetoed a ban on partial-birth abortions, accepting arguments that were dubious then and now have been discredited.
What a guy!
What to do, then, when this friend of the women’s movement appears to view any woman who moves as a sex object? When all the progressive talk and actions seem to mask behavior that would shame a dorm full of leering, lusty freshmen?
“We are in a difficult position, because I think that women’s groups to a certain degree have had an ability to have input into this Administration,” said Barbara Findlen, executive editor of Ms. magazine. “I’m sure [some women] are considering whether they would jeopardize any clout they might have” by criticizing him, she added.
If that’s the calculation, it doesn’t sit well with author Gail Sheehy. “If feminists don’t speak up … it’s going to really compromise the feminist movement,” she told The Observer . If the tale of Monica Lewinsky’s tape is true, Ms. Sheehy said, “the most disturbing thing to women, to me, is that this is a child, only a couple of years older than his daughter. And he is taking advantage of the powerful male’s position to seduce a kid who is easily seducible. That’s a basic tenet of feminism-that women shouldn’t be sex objects.”
Yet that tenet has yet to win acceptance in a political culture that remains dominated not just by males, but by a particular kind of male: obsessed with a sense of his own power, convinced of his ability to charm, in constant need of attention. For all of the advances women have made (thanks to the work of feminists and other strong-willed women), they remain mere ornaments in the boys’ clubs that set the rules of American political life. Mr. Clinton may be an egregious example of the species, but he is only an example. Any visit to Albany, where paunchy male lawmakers have been known to refer to incoming female interns as “fresh meat,” would convey just how entrenched such attitudes are.
“What I keep thinking is that there’s no way that a President sleeping with a 21-year-old White House intern is O.K.,” Ms. Findlen said. “It’s a classic situation of abuse of power.”
Here’s one solution: Place not your trust in the hands of men. Deliver to Washington, Albany and places near and far more women, regardless of ideology and party, as long as they promise to break up the perpetual floating frat house that is politics, American-style.
Additional reporting by Susan Orenstein.