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THIS IS A COMPLEX ISSUE IN A COMPLEX WORLD

Not long ago, a friend's 19-year-old son discovered that he was about to become a very unplanned parent. His not-quite-girlfriend was pregnant and determined to remain so.

Suddenly, that grandmother-to-be, a card-carrying, pro-choice feminist for most of her 50 years, was arguing ruefully about her son's right not to be a parent, about the realities of sexual entrapment, about the way her youngest child's life would be unfairly altered by this sexual act.

I was not surprised that her family had trumped her feminism, her love of son trumped her sexual politics. But I did wonder what switch had turned in her own mind. Was it loyalty? Hypocrisy? Or had she just been presented with a more complicated set of facts, a case study so close to home that it challenged and enlarged her older, simpler set of assumptions?

I think of this now during the endless sex scandal that I cannot wish away. The relentless spotlight has now turned on whether and when and why one woman should or should not believe another and another and another.

On television, the shoe is on the other foot and the smirk on the other cheek. Women who believe Paula and Kathleen but not Anita are calling women who believe Anita but not entirely Paula or unequivocally Kathleen the same names: hypocrites, Clinton groupies in women's rights clothing.

They pull out the old clips and all the stops. See Ann Lewis circa 1991 excusing Anita Hill for following Clarence Thomas to a new job. See Ann Lewis circa 1998 saying that the letters Kathleen Willey wrote Clinton after the encounter are "a contradiction."

Others who were swept into office in 1992 on the plank that Republicans "just don't get it" are asked what they think of Kathleen Willey. Carol Moseley-Braun, reluctantly pulled to the microphone, says we have to wait for all the facts.

Is this a change of mind or of the man in the White House? Is it loyalty, hypocrisy, or a sense of this story's complexity?

I am not surprised by this turn of events. Life is easier when politics and sexual politics dovetail, when public and private character adhere.

Nor am I surprised that the attention is on women. The love of a cat fight, the passion for a civil war among the sisterhood, runs deep. We know that Clinton needs female advocates -- front women -- as much as any company accused of sex discrimination needs a lawyer from the firm of Female Credibility. And we know that such sexual matters really matter to women's lives.

When all is said and done, what many will hold against Clinton is the deep discomfort of supporters who believe that he has, at the least, committed sexual misconduct, and that he has a reckless track record -- yet feel bound to hold their peace.

Still, if women in the inner circle, like women in the polls, stay with the man that brought them to the White House, it is not blind loyalty or rank hypocrisy. It is that third choice: complexity.

The complexity that splits the difference between sexual consent and harassment, between a character flaw and an impeachable offense, between Bill Clinton's behavior and Ken Starr's, between what he said and what she said.

It's the complexity that finds Kathleen Willey credible but asks about that book deal. A complexity that is overwhelmed by the preponderance of the allegations, but finds a difference between allegations and evidence. It's a complexity that is appalled by lying, but can't believe that lying about sex is a crime.

I don't expect that we will ever know exactly what happened or with whom. Nor will we find a permanent line between sexual conduct and misconduct. This whole sorry tale leaves our views of men, women, sex, politics even muddier than before.

As one woman who honked for Anita Hill and clapped for Bob Packwood's exit says now, with morbid humor, "I've lost my virginity in sexual politics." No, not a hypocrite, not even blinded by loyalty. Since the Music Man marched into the White House, she's become the sadder but wiser girl.

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