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Women mind their own business: the Lewinsky scandal


Thursday February 5, 1998 Edition

Many smart men don't understand how so many women could think that Monica Lewinsky is Hillary's problem, not theirs. Commentators say progressive women are in a bind between the president's alleged exploitation of an impressionable girl and his pro-woman public policies.

But if conversations around my beauty shop last week are any indication, that dilemma is in the minds of the beholders.

Throughout this national Rorschach test, men's emotional condemnation of President Clinton's sex life has stood in contrast to the measured response from women who want to see the facts, ma'am. The condemnation of progressive women who refuse to shame the president out of office at the first Monica sighting looks like a reaction to the startling news that women are self-interested pragmatists rather than moral spear-carriers.

With the likes of Henry Hyde, Trent Lott, and Newt Gingrich huddling in the wings, poised to reverse years of pro-woman public policy, this one is a no-brainer. A Gore administration is no substitute for the brilliant political artist from Arkansas who can slip a progressive woman's agenda behind the back of a philistine Congress.

When Clinton's Cabinet met with reporters soon after the scandal broke, it wasn't lost on American women that dress-for-success suits have replaced red ties as power statements. That Hillary originally was pilloried for her legal career rather than her choice of White House dishes represents real sex-role change. And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's gifted presence on the Supreme Court contrasts vividly with the reactionary performance of Bush-appointee Clarence Thomas.

Juxtaposed against these real-life Clinton women are the television appearances of Ms. Lewinsky's attorney, liberally using the word "girl" as he describes his helpless, overwrought 24-year-old client.

Scratch the memory of many women and a startling number can recall an illicit relationship with a powerful, charismatic, and unavailable older teacher or political leader while in their 20s. Most of these women would describe themselves as misguided volunteers to a momentarily exciting but unfortunate relationship. Such is the nature of post-adolescent passion. Few would sign on to the demeaning notion of helpless victim.

In a climate where psychopathology and family dysfunction were as fashionable as tattoos, voters in 1992 identified more with the man who threatened to beat up his abusive stepfather on the way to the presidency than George Bush's reserved normalcy. Lincoln's log cabin and Washington's cherry tree were replaced by an act against domestic violence.

Voters knew when they reelected Clinton that this was a man with flaws. If the allegations of infidelity are true, most women would tell Hillary to dump the guy. But, for the majority of American women, Clinton has never betrayed their quest for equality in advancement, achievement, and opportunity. The rest they leave to the privacy of his relationship with his wife, which is all any of us would ask.

The consensus around the beauty shop was simple: Clinton has stayed out of our bedrooms, we should stay out of his.

* Lisa Ross is a political writer in San Diego

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