I was surprised but pleased when people began calling to tell me that, in her much discussed Vanity Fair piece, Monica Lewinsky referred to one of my books, which was first published in 2002.
Lewinsky writes that the “culture of humiliation” to which she was subjected is one that “Phyllis Chesler recognized in her book Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman: that women themselves are not immune to certain kinds of misogyny. We see it today in how the ‘mean girls’ at school lurk on the modern playground of the Web (or around a pundit’s roundtable on TV or at a French restaurant), ever eager to pile on.”
I am glad that my book enlightened and hopefully strengthened her. Not only was she betrayed by the older woman in whom she confided, (Linda Tripp), but by American feminists as well.
She writes: “I don’t identify myself as a Feminist, capital F. The movement’s leaders failed in articulating a position that was not essentially anti-woman during the witch hunt of 1998…it should not have been that hard for them to swoon over the president without attacking and shaming me. Instead they joined the humiliation derby.”
Monica writes that at the time, she “sorely wished for some sign of understanding from the feminist camp…None came.”
I want Monica to know that one feminist–myself–both stood up for her and to other feminist leaders, not just over President Bill Clinton but more recently, over Obama.
(Irony of ironies: Many of the feminists whom Lewinsky describes as “swooning” over President Clinton and who joined in scapegoating her, also turned on Hillary and campaigned for Obama.)
In 1998, I was asked to discuss the Lewinsky affair on CNN and I did so. Try as I might, I could not but say that since Lewinsky is over age, is not claiming sexual harassment, sexual abuse, or rape, that how the President used her might have been an abuse of power and psychologically a form of father-daughter incest–but it was certainly not a crime. We are looking at what Lewinsky now emphatically describers as “a consensual relationship.” I also felt that Lewinsky was being portrayed wrongfully as either a pathetic victim or as a home wrecker.
Monica: If anyone was to be blamed it was both President Clinton, (and with women other than yourself), and Kenneth Starr, together with a culture of misogyny that allows powerful men (Democrats and Republicans) their pick of young, fertile and adoring women. There are powerful evolutionary reasons for this–but civilization has come into being presumably to tame the savage beast within us all. Civilization has not yet succeeded.
I want Monica to also know that major feminist leaders tried to warn me against publishing this book. They feared that it would be used against women who had already suffered mightily from negative stereotyping. This is a true point. However, repressing and denying the enormous amount of trashing that dominated our movement, these feminists insisted that “sisterhood” exists and is “powerful.”
Said I: But the truth alone will set us free. It is clear to me that women, like men, internalize sexist values and, in addition, are allowed to compete viciously against other women whom they slander, ostracize, and betray.
When I was still challenged, I asked them whether they believed the female guards at Nazi concentration camps or the white women who spit at little African-American children trying to go to school in the South were really all that “compassionate” and “moral”?
Some feminists actually tried to stop publication of this book. (That’s a story for another day). One major feminist leader tried to turn my literary agent against the very book she was representing; that agent has been dead for some years but she revealed this to me. Many feminists and a feminist media turned their back on this book. It became a classic anyway.
Deborah Tannen, whom I do not know, gave it a rave review on the front page of the now-defunct Washington Post Book World. Eleven months after publication, the New York Times interviewed me about the subject. And, over the years, feminist after feminist have called me to say: “What you wrote about just happened to me. I get it!;” or “You should have published this sooner.”
Monica: I am as aghast as you are about the bitchy, catty pseudo-feminist confab you describe as having taking place at Le Bernardin on January 30, 1998. Please allow me to assure you that these so-called “sex-positive” feminists (who are still alive) are still out there blaming conservative right-wingers as the greatest threat to womankind and failing to note the even greater threat posed by fundamentalist Islam. They are not the brainiest light bulbs around.
Monica: I do not think you are a “narcissistic loony toon”–I think you are a hero who, although highly traumatized and outnumbered, refused to “wear a wire” to further entrap President Clinton.
I am glad you wrote this article. Please call upon me for feminist support anytime.