Scandal casts harsh light on feminists

Published: Thursday, Dec. 3 1998 12:00 a.m. MST

Question: Feminists consistently supported President Clinton throughout the White House sex scandal -- even taking repeated shots from conservatives and moderates for so doing. Has the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal changed feminism?Bonnie Erbe: While President Clinton's troubles have caused feminists to look again at their criteria for supporting politicians, there is scant evidence his problems have caused them to consider changing those criteria.

Top feminist leaders such as NOW's Patricia Ireland and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., denounced the president's extramarital affair. That was good. But they also continued to throw him their undivided political support, which was a tactical mistake of no minor proportions. It opened them up to charges by right-wing women of hypocrisy.

I agree ardently with feminists on choice and women's workplace rights. Unlike conservative women, many of whom seek to tear down feminists' accomplishments, I praise them. But I part company with feminists on seemingly limitless support for the Democratic Party.

If feminists truly want to stop sexual harassment in the workplace, they cannot tolerate it in the White House. If a Republican president were caught having sex with a White House intern, feminists would be calling indignantly for that president's resignation or impeachment.

There is, or should be, a difference between activists and party loyalists. It is the job of the head of the Democratic Party to defend Clinton, no matter. But feminists (whose first priority should be women's rights, not party loyalty) should stand a bit further back and exercise a dose of impartiality.

If feminists really want to benefit women, they'll change their tactics and start engaging in the two-party system.

Josette Shiner: Right on, Bonnie. Feminists have lost support in the 1990s because many leaders have espoused a doctrinaire, liberal, elitist agenda that goes far afield from the concerns of the average American woman. And in blindly supporting President Clinton through the Lewinsky scandal the movement's own worst tendencies have grown, bulged and been revealed.

For starters, we simply know more about feminism since last January. We know that certain feminist leaders hold conservatives, like Clarence Thomas, to much higher standards than their liberal counterparts.

Susan Faludi, author of "Backlash," says of Clinton-Lewinsky: "If anything, it sounds like she put the moves on him."

Wendy Kaminer insists that "that's how you grow up. . . . You have a sexual relationship, and maybe you get a little used, and then you feel bad about yourself for a while, and then you grow up."

So this, apparently, is what it has come to.

For whether you support the president or not, the fact remains that these statements reveal something. They show that many feminist leaders have become less interested in women's well-being than in "saying the 'right' thing."

Whatever your politics, whatever you think about the past 10 months, the truth is that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal has forced feminists to make decisions. They turned out to be tough decisions. Decisions about the importance and relevance of sexual-harassment laws, decisions about the impact of adultery on women and families, decisions about what kind of men and behavior they will tolerate.

For a long time, feminists taught us many important lessons. This year, unfortunately, that changed.

Bonnie Erbe is host of the PBS program "To the Contrary." Josette Shiner is president of Empower America.

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