ON THE EVE OF President Clinton's grand jury testimony, Anita Hill predicted on CNN that "the public may be forgiving, because on balance the president is doing a good job for the public, man and woman."
On the same program, Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women agreed. Women, she said "see Bill Clinton as a complex human being with flaws and strengths, the same as others, and on balance they think he's doing a good job."When the news surfaced that Clinton would contradict sworn statements that he never had "sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky, feminists seemed to counsel not only compassion but also renewed appreciation for all that he has accomplished for women.
The fact that even now so many feminists believe that Clinton's strengths outweigh his flaws makes me wonder whether they haven't divided the world into women whose rights need to be defended and those whose rights do not. However different each circumstance, the treatment of Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Monica Lewinsky by the president's closest advisers has set a pattern over the last several years, one with discouraging legal, political and social implications.
Clinton's personal actions have flouted some of feminism's basic principles. One important contribution to women's lives has been the challenge it posed to laws that made each woman's rights dependent on her social standing. Feminists succeeded, for example, in changing laws so that a woman's sexual history cannot be used as a defense against a rape charge. This change, in turn, formed the development of sexual harassment law, which likewise curbs a defendant's ability to mount a character attack against someone who brings suit against him.
These advances, however, are not permanent or sacrosanct. The law depends on judges who interpret it, legislatures that amend it and politicians who support it. Feminists should be disturbed, then, that the president has not merely challenged the veracity of reports of illicit sexual relations or accusations of sexual harassment but has allowed his backers to make scurrilous assaults on the character of his accusers, questioning their morals, integrity and sanity.
In the Paula Jones case, one of his lawyers, Robert Bennett, threatened a search into Jones' sexual history. And then there was James Carville's famous line: "Drag a $100 bill through a trailer park and there's no telling what you'll find."
Before Paula Jones, Clinton's zealous defenders aimed a similar attack campaign at Flowers. As for Lewinsky, some Democratic operatives and unnamed White House aides said she was either a groupie who stalked the president or a fantasist with a crush on him.
Many feminists, including officials of NOW, were outraged by some these tactics. But their criticism never went further, and now it seems feminists are spouting the conventional wisdom. This grand jury investigation, they have said all along, is "just about sex" and "an invasion of privacy."
But this is plain wrong. We lose the cloak of privacy when we enter the legal process. Even a president has to answer relevant questions about sex with subordinates if he is a defendant in a sexual harassment case. If evidence shows that he may have lied under oath, he must withstand inquiry into the subject of that lie, even if it's about consensual sex.
Yet feminists have put aside their legal principles for a president who has not taken great strides for women. True, some women have benefited from the Clinton presidency: Women with husbands who can support them while they take family leave, women with the means to choose abortion, and women who aspire to professional heights, who can appreciate their role models in the Cabinet.
But these advances, important as they are, don't offset the harm he has done to women, from the poor mothers hurt by his welfare law to the plaintiffs in sex harassment suits to the individuals who were ridiculed and humiliated for what they dared to tell about him.