Already the story of Bill Clinton's alleged "sex scandal" has been framed as a clear-cut case of the sex war, with wronged women who aren't gonna suffer in silence on one side, and on the other, heartless male scoundrels who are doing their best to clap their slimy hands over the women's mouths. As literary agent Lucianne Goldberg told the February 2 New Yorker, her friend Linda Tripp woke up in a "cold fury" because "there's a level of misogyny here that's shocking. It's Trash the Women! First you use the women, then when they get pissed you trash them."
It's a line we've heard since Paula Jones sidled up to the microphone to "clear her name" - a name that no one knew until then. Her mouthpiece Susan Carpenter-McMillan claimed Ms. Jones was manifesting "a Susan B. Anthony-type feminism," which by Ms. McMillan's lights meant a Victorian lady-avenger policing the behavior of sexually voracious men. "If Paula Jones goes down," she declared, "men of power have got the upper hand."
But that's not the real divide here. The real divide is not even between men and women. The critical split is the one between girls and grown-ups. And it is a desperately important battle. Because the winners of that struggle will determine, far more than the sexual behavior of Mr. Clinton or of any politician, what kind of role women are going to carve out for themselves in the future of this country.
On the one side we have "feminism" as channeled through the Spice Girls and Fiona Apple. This is "Girl Power," which is derived only by celebrating yourself, ideally via your injuries: gaining power by talking about what was done to you. It is, by definition, only a destructive power, aimed at bringing down the bogeyman by having a sulk 'n' sob in front of the adults. It's the power available to a girl whose only recourse is tattle. The many plaintiffs of the Clinton scandal are cast, or cast themselves, as girls. Ms. Jones has referred to herself as "a little girl from Arkansas," as does Ms. McMillan, who, when in the presence of the media, makes a point of talking baby-talk to her 31-year-old charge over the cell phone. In a January 23 appearance on Larry King Live, 47-year-old Gennifer Flowers leaned forward across the desk and, suddenly going all tremulous, described herself as . . . "a little girl from Arkansas" who got swallowed up by the big bad wolves. "I was very scared," Ms. Flowers said. Monica Lewinsky is presented by her lawyer, William Ginsburg, and a media admiring of his oratory, as a "24-year-old doe in the headlights of a major international scandal." Newsweek calls her "a flirty girl in a beret," and Time quotes Pentagon sources who describe her as "a rich Beverly Hills teen" and "an attractive girl, but a girl." Admittedly, Ms. Lewinsky is young and naive, but she is legally well into adulthood.
On the other side, which is ever more sparsely populated these days, are the grown-ups. And here's where authentic feminism resides. Because if feminism is about anything, it's about women growing up. It's about becoming mature and equal players in public life. It's about seeing what happened to you in proportion, and about knowing when the public good outweighs your having a temper tantrum in public over a personal offense.
As Exhibit A of such a woman, I would offer Hillary Clinton. Here's the one woman of all the women in the country who has a right to be in a "cold fury" over this matter. And, for all I know, she is. But the point is, she isn't sharing it with every daddy figure on television. (Some father confessors, those network male anchors! Talk about the chickens confiding their story to the foxes.) And when Mrs. Clinton does choose to go before the cameras, as she did so memorably on the January 27 Today show, it is to try to inject some perspective from a woman who knows what's at stake. "Everybody ought to just stop a minute here and think about what we're doing," Mrs. Clinton said. She emphasized that "we need to put all of this into context," and by that she meant considering the political context, not prying into private relationships. Pressed by the interviewer to admit that Mr. Clinton "again has caused pain in this marriage," Mrs. Clinton replied, "You know, we've been married for 22 years . . . and I have learned a long time ago that the only people who count in any marriage are the two that are in it."
Likewise, contrast Anita Hill's performance with that of Paula Jones. Ms. Hill never defined what happened to her as the central drama; she saw her experience in the employ of Clarence Thomas as a factor to be weighed in considering his eligibility for the United States Supreme Court. She did not make her claim her raison d'etre. Also in the category of grown-ups I would put the many women Mr. Clinton has appointed to high-level staff and Cabinet and judicial appointments, all of whom are exercising an adult power - the one in which you have a voice in setting public policy, pursuing social justice and even making a difference in the lives of large numbers of other women. A grown-up who has power uses it to participate in the public world, rather than to capitalize on her own private grievances.
Which brings me to the other defining trait of feminism: sisterhood. If Linda Tripp gave a damn about women's rights, she wouldn't have led her "friend" Monica Lewinsky to the lions without batting an eye. If Susan Carpenter-McMillan gave a damn about women's rights, she wouldn't be treating Paula Jones like some dress-up Barbie doll she can grab off the playroom floor whenever the whim strikes her, rearranging her hair and traipsing her off to her latest dream date at the right-wing Rutherford Institute. These women are not considering the advancement of their sex. They are not thinking about freeing women from the stereotyped boxes that traditional society has placed them in. They are looking merely to convert that stereotyped box, temporarily, to a soapbox they can stand on. They know that the dancing girl in the cage draws the media's attention. And they would rather be the girl's keeper than offer her the key to the cage.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
In the end, what the McMillans and the Flowerses have discovered is not women's power, but the power of the trembling-lipped girl to lure the eye of the camera.
In Ms. Flowers' Larry King performance, she spoke indignantly about Mr. Clinton's alleged adultery as a violation of "God's laws. And I don't think it's something he should have been doing" - as if somehow she hadn't participated, or as if she didn't happily make hay of it three days later in the January 26 New York Post, where she boasted that Mr. Clinton "particularly liked it when I looked young and sexy in my cheerleader's outfit."
This is the advantage of playing the girl. You never do anything, it's all done to you, and so you never have to take responsibility for anything. This is a popular and easy role for women to slip into because, ultimately, Girl Power is all about women staying in that most traditional of feminine roles - enforcers of the public morality, whose power as social conscience derives directly from their political powerlessness.
The right wing is having great fun co-opting the language of women's rights to bring down a Democratic president. But it is hardly acting on women's behalf. Girl fury may destroy Mr. Clinton's presidency, but in doing so it will only reinforce the old status quo, where Daddy still knows best, and hell hath no wrath like a victim on TV.