I couldn't stop looking at Monica Lewinsky last weekend. Her videotaped deposition played in our house nonstop.
"She has the same mouth as you do," I said to my daughter, Samantha, who was lying on the bed, transfixed as I was by the young woman in pearls and basic black on the tube. A small tight mouth, with pursed lips, when she is under stress. I hadn't seen the resemblance before, as the most famous photos show her with that huge red smile and big teeth.
"Ugggh! Don't compare me to her!" Samantha groaned, her mouth growing smaller by the moment.
Then I spoke to my friend Diane. "Monica has the same mouth as my daughter," Diane said. "A small mouth. And they're the same age!"
You could feel it in the air all Sunday. Women of my age are finally returning to our senses. We're responding to Monica in the best way that women know how, as daughter, surrogate and friend.
And this is good. If we're ever going to help our daughters make sense of the Lewinsky affair, and by extension the whole new world of sexual and personal freedom that is theirs, we, too, are going to have to come to terms with Monica. Her image will haunt young women at least as long as the constitutional issues raised by the Clinton impeachment will haunt the country. But facing up to her, we've been afraid to do.
Think back on it. After the initial revelation that the president had a protracted "inappropriate relationship" with a young woman from an upper middle class home in Beverly Hills, many of us suffered a kind of political paralysis where Monica was concerned. Alternately detached, angry and embarrassed, women of my generation turned numb, unsure what if anything she had to do with the feminism that has inspired so much of our lives. We blamed her parents, we blamed her values, and most of us were thrilled that no one made an issue that she was Jewish. We were humiliated, though we didn't know why.
Over the last year, Monica Lewinsky had become completely undifferentiated from Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers. Jewish trailer trash. White House trouble, with a good manicure and big hair.
But what if we were wrong? After viewing her testimony, Maureen Dowd, of The New York Times praised her, saying, "Monica's grown up." The L.A. Times' Melissa Healy suggested that the young woman had clearly "evolved."
A better guess is that we imposed on Monica the unfinished business that so many women of my generation have with their own lives of the 1960s. It's one thing to cherish our own precious memories of "inappropriate relationships" and "youthful indiscretions" during an era when love was all there is. But do we want our daughters to know about that time of unfettered freedoms in this, the era of AIDS?
Do we now, as mothers and community role-models in the midst of our own spiritual renewal, still believe that passion and physical attraction are among life's greatest adventures, worth pursuing so long as you are taking the birth control pill? Or would we, under false pretenses, impose upon them a straight-laced Puritanism that we personally rebelled against?
This lack of personal consistency lies behind our inability to stay grounded as the rest of the political universe comes undone by allegations of sexual misconduct. But now, however belatedly, Ms. Lewinsky is showing us how a real feminist holds her ground, at least in areas that should remain private. She does not cry "sexual harassment." She does not betray her former lover.
"I assume you think he's a very intelligent man," Tennessee Rep. Ed Bryant told Lewinsky. "I think he's an intelligent president," she replied.
The Clinton impeachment has been billed as a "culture war" between conservative Republicans and more libertine Democrats, between those who fought in Vietnam and those who inhaled. But that's the male side of the story. From a woman's point of view, it is much more than that. It is an internal culture war being played out in our own homes, as we parents today are forced to face conflicts about the lives we once lived and the saner course we hope for our children.
I'm not saying we're hypocrites. Life has wised us up. A relationship is more than a passionate tryst or a 2:30 a.m. phone call, as I'm sure Lewinsky knows by now. But the way we have dismissed her so much like the women we were in her youthful flouting of all society's rules, reveals what a long strange trip it's been.
My daughter lies in bed, gazing at the woman in pearls, struggling to define the questions that apply to her life.
Was Monica evil, a pursuer? Was the problem that Clinton was the president, or that he was a married man? Was Monica's sexual passion inappropriate, or is it a natural part of the animal magnetism of power? Or was the real problem only that she kissed and told?
"Look, Samantha," I say, trying to be helpful. "She's saving herself and she's saving the day! But she got herself in trouble, and she'll have to live with that forever." And, feeling the stress of an unsolvable problem, my daughter's mouth grew small.
Marlene Adler Marks, author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food and Family Life," is senior columnist for The Jewish Journal. Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.
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