THE IMPEACHMENT TRIAL of William Jefferson Clinton may be a spine-tingling drama of law and bad feeling, but it is also a story of another sort: the implosion of our very first feminist government&emdash;the first of its kind in our national history&emdash;as it cracks under the strain of its own constantly regendered deviance. In this bizarre spectacle, the feminist male is revealed as a serial abuser, defamer, and groper of women; the feminists denounce their own laws and precedents; and the First Lady&emdash;hailed at the start of the administration as the apotheosis of an empowered Strong Woman&emdash;is adored now as an old kind of feminine victim, and seeks a new path to redemption and power as the most mistreated woman in the world.
Make no mistake about it: feminist is the only political label Bill Clinton has ever consistently earned. Elsewhere, his place on the political spectrum has been both diffuse and ambiguous; he has been both a New and the oldest of Democrats; on different sides of many tax issues; in theory at least for both big and small government. His "issues," such as they are, have been small, feel-good measures, poll-tested so as not to offend anyone. The divisive, definitive, emotion-charged and hot-button parts of his governance&emdash;abortion, Joycelyn Elders, gays in and out of the military&emdash;have all been gender-based. Similarly, the one thing that gives Clinton his interest is his wife and his marriage, which gives his story its tension and texture. Many big books are in the works about Hillary Clinton, and why not? By himself, Bill is a bore; but she is allusive and protean and evocative. It is she who gives the story a plot. It is she who disconnected Bill from the gender norms of the good old boy.
Clinton ran in 1992 on Anita Hills ticket, surrounded by stars of the "Year of the Woman," and buoyed by his feminist wife. "I believe Anita Hill," said then-Governor Clinton, clasping hands with Carol Moesley-Braun, Patty Murray, and Lynn Yackel, who ran a one-note Jennie campaign against Arlen Specter for expressing doubts about Hill. (Doubts, as it worked out, that were far milder than what later came out of Clintons White House about the women who had challenged him.) All agreed in 1992 that exploitation of female employees deserved rigorous censure. Who was to know that, one year later, a woman would claim that, in May of 1991, Governor Clinton had sent his state troopers to bring her&emdash;then a clerk making less than $5 an hour from the state of Arkansas&emdash;to his hotel room in Little Rock, where he exposed himself to her? Or, that another woman would later charge that on November 29, 1993, when she, an unpaid White House aide, had gone to the President to ask for a paid job because of grave financial and personal problems, her friend the President had grabbed her, and forced her hand to his crotch?
Could this be happening? It could. The feminist president broke feminist law, and damaged himself, his wife, and their allies, with the tools they had used to win power. Few desserts were ever so sweet, or so fitting. Few dramas ever had their dramatis personae so scrambled
Bill Clinton is our "first female president." novelist Mary Gordon said at an anti-impeachment rally in New York. (This was at about the same time fellow fiction writer Toni Morrison said he was the first black President.) This may be stretching it. But if not quite a female, he is the next best thing to it, our first feminist, even a feminine, president, so cued to emotion and feeling, so alert to nuances that may become crevices of opportunity. Few ever stepped out of the "prison of gender" so much as Bill Clinton, the mamas boy, sheltered by so many strong women, and so secure in their protective circle that at times he has seemed to be one of the girls. In many ways, most of his traits seemed to be female: He cried. He emoted. He hugged without mercy. He never stopped talking. His m.o. was seduction, not conquest. He tended to whine, and not threaten. He seemed to dislike, even fear, the armed forces. His physical presence appeared soft and squishy. He had a weight problem. People made fun of his thighs. True to form, he followed the feminist line on all points of theory. He gave them a Cabinet that looked the way that they thought that America ought to, not only with people of varying color, but of fierce-looking women and tame-looking men.
But all was not peace in this feminist Eden. This man, who won feminist hearts when he married the plain girl in glasses, was also drawn to the wrong kind of woman&emdash;all tight clothes, thick makeup, big hair. As it turned out, their new man was an old kind of problem, and one they had dealt with before: like Ted Kennedy, of Chappaquiddick, Palm Beach, and serial incidents; like Bob Packwood, the serial groper; like Gary Hart, the model new sensitized candidate until caught with a blonde on a boat. All were in tune with the gender agenda, finding new rights where none had existed. All took some hits in their way from the feminist culture. But none flouted so openly what Clinton campaigned on, and none broke a feminist law.
Was it the Hill&endash;Thomas furor that sensitized Ms. Jones to her own sad outrage, and to its great possibilities? Was she moved by the words of Ms. Hillary Clinton, who praised Ms. Hill so much for her courage, and urged other abused women to speak out? Jones spoke and exploded one feminist theory: that males, even the squishes like Clinton, can be schooled out of wanting women who do not look much or act much like men. "The sensitive New Man turned out to be just another old-fashioned masher and skirt-chaser," wrote Camille Paglia in The New Republic. "The irony is that Bills aw-shucks, Huck Finn rap is one of the most effective womanizing styles of all time." Clintons real legacy, such as it is, may be this insight into sexual politics: that one can be the worst kind of abuser and lecher, while being in no other ways like a man. Carrying an L on his forehead&emdash;for having lied about sex, in a harassment case, of all possible ironies&emdash;he will lurch forever through the halls of history, his pants at his ankles, as he is in so many skits and cartoons. So much for androgyny. So much for empathy. So much for Feminist Man.
"Hillary Clinton is the lodestar of this administration, magnetically attracting its core constituencies and repelling its die-hard enemies," Michael Barone perceptively wrote in 1994, calling her a hugely important symbol for feminists. . . . the personification of the ideas and personal choices implied by the name." Indeed, she, not her husband, was the soul of the enterprise. He was a man, like so many others. She was the difference. He was just old stuff. She was the new. She was no Jackie, changing the furniture. She was no Nancy, staring up doe-eyed. She was no Barbara Bush, leaving college to marry her war hero and bear his six children, volunteering thereafter in hospitals. This was no Little Woman. This was no Lesser Life.
"She represented all the hopes of women who woke up and got angry," said an approving Susan Faludi, author of Backlash. And anger at what? At being used, abused, and discounted by men, used as backdrops in campaigns to assure their own future, while being privately cheated on. Rose, Joan, and Jacqueline Kennedy were blasted as doormats, as was Lee Hart. In fact, in 1987, Garys wife, after feminism had been around for a while, came in for a good deal of sisterly bashing. How could she stay? How could she stand it? How could she campaign for him? "Her conduct," wrote Ann Grimes in Running Mates, her book about the wives of candidates in the 1988 elections, "was questioned by many and countenanced by few. . . . Her faithfulness in the face of infidelity, and her husbands hollow words&emdash;She has always believed in me, and she has a remarkable ability to detach her relationship to me as my wife from my roles as a candidate&emdash;hit women especially in the gut."
Grimes quotes a feminist who said that Lee Hart, like Joan, Jackie, and even Eleanor Roosevelt, could not be blamed because they had been brought up in benighted eras to be dupes, doormats, and housewives, unlike such luminaries as "Gerry Ferraro [and] Eleanor Smeal." Such indignities, the writer implied, could not happen to a Smeal or Ferraro because their feminism would prevent it. Or, to a Hillary Clinton, who would burst on the national scene four years later, and now is defended by both of them. Such things could not happen to a Hillary Clinton, who demanded, and got, such respect from her husband. But they did.
Hillary Clinton&emdash;strong woman, co-president&emdash;first met the American public on Super Bowl Sunday in 1992, sitting beside and supporting her husband as he (falsely) denied an affair with Gennifer Flowers, one of the many, many, many women with whom Clinton never had sex in his life. Now here she was again, on January 26, 1998, telling the Today Show, and all the rest of us, that if her husband had had an affair with an intern in the White House that would truly be "extremely serious," but "that will not be proven to be true." Hillary Clinton was credited at the time with having rescued her husbands unraveling presidency, but almost immediately her image had started to change. Angry pieces appeared in Time, The New Republic, New York, The New Yorker, and such glossy monthlies as Capital Style and George. She was called an enabler, a battered wife, and a feminist beard, allowing her husband to go out and abuse other women. Her credentials and bargains were called into question.
"Hillarys power seems derived largely from her ability to extricate him from sex scandals," wrote Mary Jacoby (who once worked for the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock). "Hillary has been playing second fiddle for a long time." Even left-wingers attacked her. "Someone needs to tell this woman that the first time a wife stands up for an allegedly adulterous husband, everyone thinks shes a saint. The second or third time . . . she begins to look disturbingly complicit," wrote Barbara Ehrenreich. And the redoubtable Andrea Dworkin complained, "Being a feminist has to mean you dont use your intellect and your creativity to protect a mans exploitation of women."
But if Hillary lost ground among female writers, she also gained many new friends. Among them were the angry white Southern males, who once strongly detested both of the Clintons, but now found a place in their hearts for them both. Of course, he fooled around&emdash;as they would, Mary McGrory reported. Of course, he lied&emdash;as they would. "Then Hillary comes out and defends him. Every man should have a wife like that . . . Hillary Clinton, once regarded as an uppity Yankee shrew, has become something of a heroine among the Bubbas, who relate more to Tammy Wynette than to Eleanor Roosevelt. They once thought of her as . . . too smart for a woman, but now shes a good ole girl, who stands by her man, and understands guy things better than they thought."
She also gained ground among other women&emdash;the traditional housewives she once had disparaged, who bonded along lines of suffering. As conservative Maggie Gallagher wrote, "Homemaking women . . . identified with Hillary, and . . . began to swing to Clintons side when she made her remarkable defense of my husband, understanding too well what it meant to rely upon a philandering breadwinner." Gallagher traced the Clintons support to "the same mechanisms that led to the Victorian double standard," in which "men were granted a special sexual license," while wives defended them, attacked "other women" as tramps and connivers, and otherwise turned a blind eye.
Hillarys numbers, which started to rise with her winter defense of "my husband," really took off after his August 17th non-confession, when it at last became clear to the country that not only had her husband cheated repeatedly in their home (on Easter, and on their anniversary) with a girl young enough to have been their own daughter, but had also sent her out to lie for months on end. Now twice the victim, and played for a sap, Hillarys polls shot to new heights of approval. She was victimhood squared. At the same time, whatever her role as a backstage advisor, her public profile had shrunk to the worst kind of First Lady fluffery: going on meaningless historical visits, patting small children at classroom occasions, editing childrens letters to her cat and dog. And posing for Vogue, looking stunning and glitzy, alongside a long puff piece extolling her "dignity," with little mention of what this dignity has been called upon to overcome. "Her approval rating is at a record high, even as her actual achievements are at a record low," said Wendy Wasserstein, who used to adore her. "Hillary is moving at breakneck speed away from even the appearance that shes doing something meaningful for the lives of Americans," wrote an unadoring Andrea Peyser in the New York Post. "Instead, shes chosen to cast herself in the image of a sad, abused, misunderstood, and, above all, glamorous princess," a shorter, less attractive, Princess Di.
Even her recent November successes, when she helped to elect some favorite Democrats&emdash;Chuck Schumer in New York, against her old enemy Al DAmato; and her in-law and favorite, Barbara Boxer&emdash;were less an assertion of feminist power than odd re-assertions of this dynamic of grievance. Democrats who still liked Bill Clinton could rally to her as his consort and surrogate. But people appalled and repelled by his conduct could register this against him, not his party, by supporting her as his single most visible victim&emdash;a win-win formulation all around. No First Lady not so abused by her lout of a husband could have had such electric and staggering impact, the perfect example of weakness as strength. No doubt this dynamic will weigh in again, should she decide to seek elective office. This killer-lawyer-co-president has never soared higher, than as a symbol of feminine weakness. "Mrs. Clinton has gone from seeming too controlling for some to seeming unable to control her own husband," says The New Yorkers Jane Mayer. "Thanks to Monica, Hillary is, finally, one of the girls."
Who ever guessed that Hillary Rodham, who came to town as the empowered gender-avenger, would end up (for the time being, at least) as the stiff upper-lipped 50s matron, standing up once again for her man? No wonder Wendy Wasserstein says mournfully that "her current popularity seems a bridge to the past, rather than the future." Wassersteins oeuvre is the story of Hillarys cohort, as it moves from uncommon feminist promise to the confusions of modern reality. Is The Hillary Chronicles the next stage in the canon? Stay tuned.
Bill and Hillary Clinton will probably hang on in office, however diminished, but whether they do or not, their allies in the feminist movement will have taken a hit. Joined at the hip to both of the Clintons, they have smashed their own codes to follow the First Couples gender gyrations, and as a consequence have endorsed two of the stereotypes they once opposed&emdash;the clinging, forgiving, Victorian doormat; and the compulsive and abusive lech. Functioning as a tail to the Clinton kite, the feminists have been forced to explain why harassment, which they once saw under every bed, was not always what it looked like, and why some abused women were actually just reactionaries. "She wasnt killed. She wasnt harassed. She wasnt fired," said Betty Friedan of Paula Jones. "Its a diversion. I abhor the use of a sexual issue this way." And on the Willey front, Gloria Steinem invoked her "one free grope" theory, in which assault was not harassment, and not really criminal, as long as it stopped short of rape. Meanwhile, she would not deign to judge Mr. Clinton, as she was not blameless. How could she hold him to a higher standard than herself?
What a transformation. "There is no room in the job description for Chief Womanizer," Ellen Goodman once wrote during the Gary Hart scandals. Betty Friedan&emdash;then&emdash;agreed. "This is the last time a candidate will be able to treat women as bimbos," she told Time in 1987. "Theres an implied denigration of women, a lack of respect of [their] values." But "So what?" she says now. "Whats the big deal?" Here is Ellen Goodman again, in 1987 during the Hart affair: "Is sex the only thing thats off limits? . . . much has been changed. . . . The old-boy tolerance of dalliance&emdash;men will be men&emdash;has been changed by the admission of women into the political system: the gentlewomens disagreement. . . . A slogan of the womens movement&emdash;the personal is political&emdash;has become a common sensibility. We are more willing to admit the importance of something called character. And less willing to accept a character that is split between public and private life."
But things havent changed, quite as much as she thought. "Compartmentalization" is now hailed as a virtue. Men will be men, Geraldine Ferraro told Rep. Tillie Fowler, asking her not to vote for impeachment. And Friedan describes the Jones and Willey episodes as being part of Clintons private life.
Likewise, the girls have turned cartwheels, trying to keep up with their evolving (devolving?) First Lady. What was repression and shame in Lee Hart and Rose Kennedy is maturity and strength in her. "She demonstrated what a partnership is in a marriage," says a spokesman for the Feminist Majority, incredibly. "The public sees a woman who has conducted herself with dignity and strength and courage in the face of adversity, and their respect for her will only increase."
And maybe it will, but around March, respect for the feminists dropped like a stone, and still has not recovered. They will always retain the support of core members, but respect for them as supporters of women&emdash;all women, not just their special allies&emdash;is gone. They no longer have the automatic support of the mainstream, the attendant non-members, who once assumed that all women shared the same interests: equal pay, equal rights, better treatment of rape victims, and keep your big hands to yourself. Now, questions on the Sunday talk shows appear largely focused on the duplicity of the feminist movement, and feminist talking heads often find themselves opposed not by guilty males but by disgusted conservative women. Gloria Borgia bailed out. Richard Cohen defected. In Vanity Fair, Marjorie Williams, a self-confessed feminist and a Democrat, raked the sisters over the coals for an unseemly defense of their president. Even Margaret Carlson was moved to speak out: "If Clarence Thomas laid Coke cans end to end, each with a pubic hair on top, sufficient to encircle the Capitol, his behavior would not have been as offensive as the Governor of Arkansas, inviting an employee to his room, dropping his trousers, and asking her to kiss it," she said.
This is what happens when a group loses its moral authority, and sinks from the status of noble cause to that of fringe interest group, predictably partisan. In this case, the feminists have lost the ability to speak out for the interests of women in general, to carry their case to the general public, and even to press further harassment cases without fear of looking ridiculous. Probably, they have been like this for a very long time&emdash;in their very soft treatment of Senator Kennedy; in their very long silence on Senator Packwood; on their silence in 1996 upon the discovery that Dick Morris, Bill Clintons then-pollster, was also doing work for one Alex Kelly, the one-time teen fugitive, now convicted for several rapes. But it wasnt brought to light so vividly until this year. "It took a Hillary to raise a president," said Gail Sheehy, meaning it took her discipline to whip her boy into shape. And it took a Bill Clinton to bring down the feminists. Always look out for your friends.
Their face is not the only thing feminists have lost in their defenses of Bill and of Hillary Clinton. They have shot holes all through the harassment statutes&emdash;their signature issue&emdash;as well. This may be good, or bad, or perhaps both and neither, but it is certainly happening. How can they enforce laws upon Tom, Dick, and Harry, when they waive them on behalf of their Bill? What they have been doing throughout this scandal in defense of their hero has been to give him leave to break the laws that they sponsored, and more, that they urged him to sign. It was their idea to make harassment law this important; their idea to give the womans attorney the right to ask the male defendant all those nosy, pesky, invasive questions about aides and/or interns, and who touched who where. Freidanesque weaseling, all about privacy, would quickly unravel this fabric. "To say . . . that its forgivable for the defendant to lie about sex in a sex-harassment case is to trivialize and ultimately delegitimize sexual-harassment claims," said Heather Higgins in the Wall Street Journal. "If . . . Mr. Clinton should be excused from perjury and obstruction in these matters because the disclosures would have been embarrassing . . . so too should that standard apply to embarrassed business executives . . . and if workplace relationships that are either embarrassing or consensual are therefore deemed private and thus either off limits or okay to lie about, then sexual-harassment law as written will soon be a farce."
But mere days after the scandal broke, the harassment culture had started to crumble; as men started to realize it was all right to leer. "I can now revert to my old, bigoted form," said one cheerful executive. "The current scandal might send men a new signal," ran a New York Times story, "a sign that the time is now ripe for a more relaxed, less rigid, climate." The Times quoted a harassment consultant as having said of his clients: "They are looking at this case as a test case. If the same groups that pushed sexual-harassment policies on to the agenda are now giving the President a pass, then maybe something has changed."
"Bill Clinton has been bad for women," wrote Suzanne Fields in the Washington Times. "Hes brought back the old stereotypes: the tramp, the conniver, the vamp, the seductress, the avenger, the patient wife, who will accept anything but public admission that her husbands a cheat, the vulnerable ingenue on the casting couch, who will accept any kind of degrading behavior to keep an affair going with a powerful man." Since the feminists made it their calling to change all these images, Clinton hurt them most of all. He reinstated the Victorian model of the cheating man and long-suffering consort. He shredded their laws, tarnished their image, and reduced their role model to a brave little wife.
But if it took a Bill Clinton to damage the feminists, it took the feminists to tarnish their Bill. Without their work over the course of a generation there would have been no scandal; no trial. They would not be exposed, Hillary Clinton would not be embarrassed; and President Clinton would not be impeached. How did this happen? Committed to the harassment issue after the Hill&endash;Thomas hearings, feminists, with two friends in the White House and many more in the Justice Department, began to press for large expansions in harassment law. People were now fined, or fired, for what some considered harmless, or commonplace, language. A chance remark, or an off-color joke, could be considered harassment. A picture that someone disliked was considered harassment. So was the "wrong" magazine. Laws were tipped sharply in favor of plaintiffs: including one that made it possible for a womans attorney, on the grounds of seeking a pattern of conduct, to investigate all the defendants sexual contacts with people once in his employ. It was this provision, a recent departure, that gave Paula Joness lawyers the right to seek and to find one Miss Lewinsky, and ask Clinton the questions that caused him to lie.
Conservatives claimed that this law was excessive, but feminists said it was needed. At their behest, Clinton signed it again into law, when he reaffirmed the Violence Against Women Act in February 1998. Conservatives might also have thought the Paula Jones case was not legal harassment, as she seemed to have suffered no consequence; but the Anita Hill spectacle had a different message. Feminists claimed then that the alleged conduct itself was legal harassment, and it was on these grounds that the Jones case gained its legitimacy. "These are principles embraced not by the enthusiasts of Ms. Jones, wrote Philip Terzian, but by the Presidents friends and colleagues in the academic world."
And so they were. The complaints uttered by feminists against the "sexual terrorism" used by conservatives in the Jones case were a little bit specious, as they had invented these tactics, and approved of them heartily when they were used against their enemies. Their real complaint was that these measures were used on all the wrong people. They were set up in large part to catch pro-life judges, not their own weepy Bill. They are like terrorists whose bombs have blown up in their own faces. "Their rules were designed to trap a Wilbur Mills or a Clarence Thomas," wrote Barbara Amiel. "What feminists never anticipated was catching one of their own."
But they did. One of the arguments made by Clintons defenders, Arthur M. Schlesinger among them, was that Clinton had the right to lie to the lawyers, as those were questions no one had the right to ask of him. But they did have the right. He gave it to them. He, and his feminist friends. Never has justice been so sweet, or poetic. Bill Clinton, at the urgings of his wife and their allies, managed to impeach himself.
Ms. Emery wrote Fashionably Left in the October 1998 issue of Heterodoxy.