(Image: PA in Church Times)
BY KATIE MAGUIRE, North America Editor
A year since the #MeToo and Times Up movements exploded into the public consciousness, what effect have they had in changing political discourse. Unfortunately, it seems their impact is limited on both sides of the aisle. Whilst Republicans rushed through another Supreme Court Justice accused of sexual harassment without proper investigations, Democrats also struggle to gain credibility in their support of sexual assault movements from their refusal to distance from Bill Clinton.
In the wake of the developments and discussions about what constitutes sexual assault, it makes sense that Bill Clinton’s 1998 affair with then 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky is being re-evaluated.
As a result of the indiscretion of the President of the United States Lewinsky found herself the butt of the joke on every talk show and the centre of all media attention. In just The Washington Post, 125 articles were written about her in the first ten days after the Starr report broke. She was denigrated to the “cheap slut” who slept with a married man, regardless of the gross power imbalance or the twenty-seven year age difference. Lewinsky’s mother reportedly had her leave the door open while she showered during the investigation because she was so concerned that Monica would take her own life as a consequence of her treatment from the media, the President, and the public.
After a decade out of the public eye, Lewinsky returned in 2014 with an article for Vanity Fair called “Shame and Survival” where she maintained that Clinton took advantage of her, though the relationship was consensual on both ends. She said she wanted to “stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past”.
Since then she has been an advocate for anti-bullying, particularly online, attempting to channel her experience positively, an outspoken advocate for the #MeToo movement. In March Lewinsky discussed the affair and reflected on its aftermath and impact on her life for Vanity Fair in light of the #MeToo movement, noting “Now, at 44, I’m beginning to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern.”
In sharp contrast to this display of class, over the 2016 election and beyond Trump supporters were often sporting apparel with the slogan “Hillary sucks but not like Monica”, seemingly Lewinski can never escape the abuse.
Perhaps more surprisingly in the era of #MeToo, Hillary Clinton last week maintained that Bill Clinton should not have resigned in wake of the affair and claimed it was not an abuse of power because Lewinsky was an “an adult”.
This is hard to reckon with for many feminists given Hillary is considered to have been a progressive voice in the Democratic Party for the past few decades, and indeed the #MeToo movement. However, this refusal to blame Bill suggests a dangerous double standard. That the limits of Hillary’s support for survivors of assault do not extend to those who suffered at the hand of her husband, when the “right man’s narrative is threatened”.
Clinton here also undermines the very basis of #MeToo, that power is the biggest factor in abuse. Not age, gender, or fame. Instead, Hillary again does a disservice to women, by not acknowledging the pain caused at her husband’s hand to Lewinsky, but also to Juanita Broaddrick and Paula Jones who allege more serious non-consensual abuses of power from Bill. By continuing to stand by Bill at a time when attitudes are shifting away from accepting the complicity of spouses, undermines her as the feminist hero she portrays herself as, and that people want her to be.
Following her objection that Lewinsky was an adult, Hillary said “But let me ask you this. Where’s the investigation of the current incumbent, against whom numerous allegations have been made, and which he dismisses, denies, and ridicules.”
The “whataboutism”, though she raises a valid point regarding Trump’s terrible record with women, is distinctly Trump-like in itself, and does not diminish the importance of revisiting the Clinton allegations and the need for the Democratic Party to recognise their own legacy of sexual misconduct, not in the least to make their support of movements like #MeToo and Times Up more credible.
As for a re-evaluation of Bill Clinton from the Democratic Party themselves, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who occupies the Senate seat once held by Hillary said she now believed President Clinton should have resigned in 1998, suggesting some slow progress and hope for the future direction of the party, but this is nowhere near sufficient to reconcile the present day Democrat stance on sexual harassment with their support of a sexual harasser.
Republicans also fail to offer a substantive change in the #MeToo era, perhaps less surprisingly. The most disappointing sign that not enough progress has been made is the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, an appointment that echoes the appointment of Clarence Thomas who was also accused of sexual assault in 1991.
It is hard not to note the parallels. Both were accused during the nomination process by two women whose testimonies were both powerful and credible. Both allegations were denied by the nominee. Neither accusation was sufficiently investigated.
It is worth noting that the Thomas hearings were not the only parallel in the Kavanaugh hearings. Kavanaugh ironically mirrored the Clintons in his defence. Kavanaugh claimed that “this whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit… revenge on behalf of the Clintons” funded by millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups.” When, in the 1990s Hillary claimed that the accusations against her husband were part of a “vast, right-wing conspiracy”. It seems that Time is not yet Up for sexual harassment and sexual harassers. When the same defence is being used twenty years later, it is hard not to lament the lack of progress that appears to have been made.
That is not to say that there has not been any progress evident from the Kavanaugh hearings in the treatment of accusers. At the Clarence Thomas hearings, his defenders smeared her as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty”, and whilst Brett Kavanaugh’s supporters were as hell-bent on getting him confirmed, they refrained from questioning either Dr Blasey Ford’s sanity or her morals, hopefully indicating that in 2018 voters would find that unacceptable. Even Trump initially admitted her testimony was very credible, though later mocking the very same testimony.
Perhaps this is a sign that times are changing in politics, just not quickly enough. The ramifications of having two sitting justices accused of sexual assault will be felt potentially decades to come, given the life tenure of appointees to the Supreme Court.