Bill Clinton’s accusers are sceptical. As the clamour grows to revisit the former president’s history of sexual harassment, Abuse of power and alleged rape, and to scrutinise the actions of those who shielded him, his accusers are far from reassured.
Paula Jones, who reached an $850,000 out of court settlement with Clinton after she accused him of exposing his penis and demanding oral sex when he was governor of Arkansas in 1991, wonders if there is genuine remorse among the “liberal women” who disparaged and demeaned her two decades ago.
Juanita Broaddrick finds little comfort in her account of being raped by the former president finally receiving wider backing from some quarters over her claims. . “This great epiphany that should have occurred 20 years ago, coming about now, I should feel ecstatic about it. But I don’t. I feel very disappointed that they waited two decades to do this,” she told Fox News.
Bill Clinton has consistently denied the accusations of harassment and assault. His supporters say that after a lengthy investigation no evidence was found that he had committed a crime and his accusers accounts were inconsistent.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has supported and accepted support from the Clintons, caused a stir last week when she said the then president should have resigned over his affair with Monica Lewinsky which the former intern has said was consensual but an abuse of power.
Gillibrand’s Office said the senator was speaking about if Clinton were in office at this time. But revisiting the former president’s abuses remains a complex issue for many in the women’s movement as Hillary Clinton continues to assert that the accusations against her husband were “disproved”.
Some among a younger generation of feminists are cautious.
While recognising the failures of leaders of the women’s movement to speak up for Clinton’s accusers, they question what revisiting the past is meant to achieve. Is it a political distraction from the abuses of those already in power – Donald Trump – or seeking it – Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican running for the US Senate? Is it another stick with which to beat Hillary Clinton because of her defence of her husband? And what will be the impact on the women who accused Clinton if it means dragging them through a public ordeal once again in the age of internet hate?
Emily May, cofounder of Hollaback, an initiative to fight street harassment, questioned whether re-examining abuses and allegations that have already been well scrutinised will do much to change the culture which made them possible.
“The singular focus on the individual high powered men who are doing this feels a bit to me like playing Whac-A-Mole. It doesn’t get at the root of the problem, which is this is a culture that we live in, we breathe in. That this is something each of us plays a role in recreating and re-establishing on a day to day basis,” she said. “I think that what we are missing, what the media is missing, what society is missing, is that it’s very easy to hate on these guys. It’s very easy to be ‘screw you Harvey Weinstein, screw you Bill Clinton’. It is very, very hard to create a world in which sexual harassment [and] sexual assault do not actually happen. It is very hard to take the time to even imagine that world.”
Chloe Safier, an independent consultant on global women’s rights and gender justice, said discussion about Clinton’s past rarely gets past the more lurid aspects of his actions. “Focusing on Bill Clinton, or Anthony Weiner – or Gary Condit or Mark Foley for that matter – is like going back to the weeds when we need to be looking at the forest. We need to talk about how the fundamental structures of power have created impunity for men to commit these abuses,” she said.
Safier said that any re-examination of Clinton or other politicians now out of power risks becoming a distraction from those in office. “We need to talk about Roy Moore right now, because he’s running for office, and he has the potential to bring about legislation that will advance his worldview. But for the many, many other men who once abused their power while in office, I believe reassessing their actions at this particularly moment would be manipulated for political, partisan means,” she said.
“A reassessment of individual abuses of power would likely serve as a distraction from the deeper, more systemic problems we need to address as a society: the entrenched patriarchy that leads to abuses of power, and which exists not only in political offices but in schools, factories, militaries, boardrooms, everywhere.”
Bonnie Morris, the author and women’s history professor at George Washington University, met Clinton when he was president and he brought his daughter, Chelsea, to see college basketball. He was about to leave after the men played and Morris persuaded him to stay and see the women’s game.
Morris said that if people want to scrutinise the past in order to change the future she is fine with that. But not if it is intended as a distraction from the present. “We can go back further than Clinton, and acknowledge that JFK used the office of the presidency to pursue extramarital affairs even while some in conservative America feared his Catholicism,” she said. “If the current interrogation of all sexually exploiting males is a post-Trump awakening, the past can be examined anew, but not before we ask why it was acceptable to elect a leader who has jested about grabbing women by their genitalia.”
Morris said it is also important to note that national discussion did not begin with Clinton or the most recent revelations set in motion by Harvey Weinstein’s fall but with Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas in 1991 after his nomination to the supreme court.
Rebecca Traister, the feminist writer said that a reevaluation of Bill Clinton is important in the context of Anita Hill’s testimony because it “helped clarify for America that sexual harassment wasn’t some individual behavioral quirk, but rather a pattern that did material harm to women in workplaces”. She said that “the left’s defence of Clinton got the conversation off track”. However, Traister described the past week’s focus on Clinton as “a little over the top”.“It should be part of this reckoning, but not dominate it. I think people gravitate toward it because it’s an easier conversation to have than the one about what to do about the president currently in the White House, the men in congress, and in the media, and in our own offices and factories and homes, our friends and our husbands and our sons and in many cases, ourselves,” she said.
Among those who came to Clinton’s defence two decades ago was Gloria Steinemwho argued in a 1998 New York Times column that while she accepted Jones account that Clinton had exposed himself and harassed her, feminists were right to resist pressure for his impeachment or resignation because his policies in favour of women were more important.
At the time, she wrote: “If the President had behaved with comparable insensitivity toward environmentalists, and at the same time remained their most crucial champion and bulwark against an anti-environmental Congress, would they be expected to desert him? I don’t think so. If President Clinton were as vital to preserving freedom of speech as he is to preserving reproductive freedom, would journalists be condemned as “inconsistent” for refusing to suggest he resign? Forget it.”
Steinem described the allegations made by Kathleen Willey, a White House volunteer, that Clinton felt her breasts and pushed her hand into his groin in the Oval Office as a “clumsy sexual pass”, and questioned the woman’s motives.
The price for the accusers was high. Lewinsky has said her affair with Clinton was consensual and that the real abuse came after it was exposed.
“Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any “abuse” came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position,” she wrote in Vanity Fair in 2014 . Lewinsky said that she remained troubled that feminists did not speak up for her. “I sorely wished for some sign of understanding from the feminist camp. Some good, old-fashioned, girl-on-girl support was much in need. None came. Given the issues at play – gender politics, sex in the workplace – you’d think they would have spoken up. They didn’t. I understood their dilemma: Bill Clinton had been a president “friendly” to women’s causes,” she wrote.
Last week Lewinsky gave an interview to the London Evening Standard where she said she was proud that teenage girls had told her that they had read her 2014 Vanity Fair article in their feminist groups. “It’s incredibly moving for me and I’m grateful that I am somehow able to take my experiences from almost 20 years ago and find a way to help other people,” she said.
Jones, Willey and Broaddrick were similarly publicly pilloried in defence of Clinton and the Democratic party. Emily May, of Hollaback, thinks that if there’s value in revisiting Clinton’s abuses if it is used to learn from. “We need to do the work to really validate women’s stories across the board and going back in history to re-examine, did we have this woman’s back? Did we not? And what can we do now to do that?
“Certainly that could be [re-examining] Bill Clinton but let’s also take another look at Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill has come out on the right side of history but she was put through hell in a hand basket and I feel like we really need to as a society re-evaluate how we, the respect and the care and the kindness that we gave her through that process,” she said.
For that reason, May is also cautious about forcing Clinton’s victims back into the spotlight against their will. In the end, she said, it is up to them whether the former president is called to account. “I don’t think we should make that decision on their behalf. If those women feel emboldened in this moment to come forward to again share their stories, and again go through the scrutiny of the public spotlight, then we should welcome them and we should listen to them,” she said.
“I don’t think that we should push them through that for our ends because it’s too hard and the cost is too high and they’ve already paid an incredibly high price for coming forward and speaking their truths.”