Octogenarian feminist icon Gloria Steinem has been in the news lately, thanks in part to Caitlin Flanagan’s much-discussed Atlantic essay revisiting the sexual assault allegations against former President Bill Clinton.
As Flanagan reminded us, Steinem played a leading role in the feminist campaign to save Clinton’s presidency after Americans learned of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky and his behavior with Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones. Most notably, Steinem published a March 1998 New York Times op-ed arguing that, even if Willey and Jones were telling the truth about his unwanted sexual advances, Clinton was “not guilty of sexual harassment,” because he “took ‘no’ for an answer.” In each instance, she explained, “Mr. Clinton seems to have made a clumsy sexual pass, then accepted rejection.”
And the Lewinsky scandal? Steinem shrugged that off, too, on the grounds that the POTUS–intern relationship had been consensual (“there is no evidence to suggest that Ms. Lewinsky’s will was violated”). She acknowledged that Clinton may have lied about “some or all” of this under oath; yet in her view, his decision to commit perjury rather than admit the truth suggested that the moral expectations of American society had become unfair and unrealistic. “Perhaps we have a responsibility,” she wrote, “to make it O.K. for politicians to tell the truth—providing they are respectful of ‘no means no; yes means yes’—and still be able to enter high office, including the Presidency.”
We should never forget that, back in 1998, Steinem was speaking for many—and probably most—self-styled liberal feminists, large numbers of whom rallied to Clinton’s defense and accused Republicans of prurience, prudery, or “sexual McCarthyism.”
Nearly twenty years later—at a moment when (a) the Clintons are no longer politically useful to the Democratic Party and (b) the country is grappling with a flood of sexual-harassment charges against rich, powerful, and famous men—plenty of former Clinton apologists have changed their tune. Even Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat who holds Hillary Clinton’s old Senate seat, now says the 42nd president should have resigned over Monica.
So does Steinem have any regrets about her infamous New York Times piece? The Guardian asked her that question on November 29, outside a charity event for the Ms. Foundation for Women.
“We have to believe women. I wouldn’t write the same thing now because there’s probably more known about other women now. I’m not sure,” Steinem said. “What you write in one decade you don’t necessarily write in the next. But I’m glad I wrote it in that decade.”
Huh? Steinem elaborated: “I’m glad I wrote it at the time. Because the danger then was we were about to lose sexual harassment law because it was being applied to extramarital sex, free will, extramarital sex, as with Monica Lewinsky.”
It’s impossible to know whether Steinem actually believes her own spin. But taken at face value, her comments to the Guardian reflect a profound misunderstanding of the Clinton sex scandals and their consequences.
Leave aside, for the sake of argument, the frighteningly credible accusation of rape that Juanita Broaddrick made against Clinton in February 1999, roughly a year after Steinem’s op-ed appeared. (Last month, no less a liberal than New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote an article with the haunting title, “I Believe Juanita.”) By effectively excusing Clinton’s treatment of Willey, Jones, and Lewinsky, Steinem and other feminists helped foster a cultural climate that emboldened sexual harassers and abusers.
No, that doesn’t mean Steinem & Co. are responsible for the depravities of, say, Harvey Weinstein. But it’s worth remembering that, in her 1998 op-ed, Steinem cited Clinton’s “vital” role in “preserving reproductive freedom”—i.e., abortion rights—as a reason for feminists to oppose his resignation or impeachment.
The message was clear: If you’re good for The Cause, you can get a pass on disgraceful behavior.
Weinstein surely had something like that in mind when, in response to the initial New York Times story about his long history of sexual misconduct, he vowed to atone for his misdeeds through political activism and social work.
“I am going to need a place to channel [my] anger,” Weinstein wrote, ”so I’ve decided that I’m going to give the NRA my full attention. I hope Wayne LaPierre will enjoy his retirement party. I’m going to do it at the same place I had my Bar Mitzvah. I’m making a movie about our President, perhaps we can make it a joint retirement party. One year ago, I began organizing a $5 million foundation to give scholarships to women directors at USC. While this might seem coincidental, it has been in the works for a year. It will be named after my mom and I won’t disappoint her.”
Alas, for Weinstein, the political trump card that saved Bill Clinton in the late 1990s was not enough to save a repulsive movie mogul in 2017. The culture has changed, probably forever. Just ask Al Franken. Or John Conyers. Or Kevin Spacey. Or Charlie Rose. Or . . .
Yet despite the seismic cultural shift that has brought down a long and ever-growing list of celebrities, Gloria Steinem remains glad that she defended a sexual predator two decades ago. She wouldn’t do it today, mind you, but she’s glad to have done it in 1998.
Caitlin Flanagan was therefore wrong to conclude, in her Atlantic piece, that Steinem’s op-ed “must surely stand as one of the most regretted public actions of her life.” In fact, Steinem does not regret it. Quite the opposite. Which tells us everything we need to know about the hollowness of Steinem’s “feminism.”
Image: By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Gloria Steinem) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons