March 26, 1998
Clinton and the Feminists
A Woman's Voice/Marlene Adler Marks
For many Jewish women, the feminist movement hasbeen the key political event of our lifetimes. It has given us rolemodels, women of great personal power and intellectual agility, andallowed us to venture into unprecedented careers and lifestyles.Arguably, the reason so many Jewish women were drawn to feminism isthat it articulated the dream of personal freedom and the mandate ofpolitical activism contained within our own spiritual tradition, thepursuit of tikkun olam.
Having said that, the women's movement today is,if not completely dead, at least lacking vital signs. It lacks acompelling, updated dream that can keep hope and focus alive for thegeneration of young women who reject it as old hat. The forcedresponse of feminist leaders last week to the Clinton sex scandals isonly the latest proof that our daughters are right -- that feministleaders, of all people, do not know what women want.
Patricia Ireland of the National Organization forWomen, responding to Kathleen Willey's case against presidentialgroping, suggested that Clinton may be a "sexual predator." GloriaSteinem, writing in the Op-Ed pages of last Sunday's New York Times,defends the chief executive as a man who committed no harassment,since, unlike Sen. Bob Packwood and Clarence Thomas, Clinton can take"no" for an answer.
"Welcome sexual behavior is about as relevant tosexual harassment as borrowing a car is to stealing one," Steinemwrote.
These viewpoints, polar opposites though theywere, are appallingly inadequate. Ireland's answer was merelyrhetorical overkill. But Steinem's tortured pursuit of a legalloophole for her president -- redefining sexual harassment soambiguously that even Casanova could slip through -- is aself-inflicted wound, one that opens her up to charges that themovement she herself helped found is merely a shill for politicalpragmatism.
The fact is that most women have moved on frombitter sexual politics that marked its beginnings nearly threedecades ago. Male vs. female rhetoric has given way to a politics ofreconciliation between the sexes. We want an end to the sexualhostility that still seems to permeate the dating scene, theworkplace and the home.
With this background of personal regret, many ofus view the Clinton matter with a new sophistication, not because weare Democrats but because there are larger issues at stake thanbuilding a case for another impeachment.
Most women, like Americans in general, believethat the president's private life is none of our business, and itwould be great if some feminist leaders said so. That they can't,reveals the basic problem at the core of the current feminist agenda:its irrelevance to most women's lives. Women's issues today are homeissues: the decline of public education; the psychological problemsof young women, including massive eating disorders; and the spiritualdecline of community and family, including problems facing men.Feminism arose 30 years ago as a response to thwarted ambitions andpersonal desires. It was never supposed to be part of the old-boynetwork, defending or defeating friend or foe.
Many Jewish feminists, once galvanized by anational political agenda that responded to their needs, have alreadyfled the secular political fold. With the exception of abortionrights, they are turning their attention to the home. Young Jewishwomen today are reinvigorating volunteer organizations, takingcourses in Torah or attending rabbinical school. When it comes totrue domestic crisis, secular feminists are as relevant as theDaughters of the American Revolution.
There's no doubt that the whole matter ofClinton's sex life is unsavory. The president is no choirboy; he toyswith women's affections in a gross and cruel way. But Gennifer,Paula, Monica and Kathleen -- each of the women who have come forthwith stories against Clinton -- are equally manipulative andexploitative. There's no victim among them, and it belittles greatwomen's causes to insist that we must respond to matters as trivialas this.
The public's interest in this scandal is purely amatter of prurience. There is no feminist issue here, including thematter of sexual harassment. Feminists last week were trying tocapture a sense of their own centrality to the political controversy,but they are mistaken: They have no constituency.
America in the late 1990s is influenced more byspiritual issues than political agenda. The reason Kenneth Starr isuniversally loathed by the American public is that he is stalkingClinton like prey, hunting a man already mortally wounded. One wouldexpect that feminism would bring empathy to the public debate, not arewritten version of "Stand by Your Man."
Women are tired of male-bashing; they're exhaustedfrom partisanship. They want something more from their feministleadership than a sense that the workplace is a hostile environmentand that men are untrustworthy allies. And they want to be able todenounce a man whose sexual behavior is outrageous without bringinghim to ruin. Both Ireland and Steinem's responses lack the basiccandor, the willingness to call Clinton foul without going for blood.Sad, indeed, for a movement whose first vision was to end politics asusual.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish Journal. She hosts a live chat on Thursdays at 8 p.m. onAmerican Online, Keyword: Jewish Chat. Her e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org
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