Al Franken, in resigning from the Senate after eight women accused him of making unwanted Sexual advances, bitterly noted “the irony in the fact that I am leaving, while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office, and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party.” Indeed, Donald Trump remains the president of the United States, and while many Republicans have denounced retired Alabama judge Roy Moore, he seems likely to win a Senate seat next Tuesday with the full backing of the White House. Likewise, Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold, who quietly settled a lawsuit from an accuser, has faced only a couple GOP calls, from women lawmakers in the party, for his resignation. With the notable exception of Representative Trent Franks, who resigned on Friday after he had allegedly asked two female staffers if he could impregnate them, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the dizzying pace of the #MeToo movement was blunted as soon as it came up against the demands of partisanship in our polarized era.
As we plunge once more into a national debate over sex, power, assault and morality, many hope this will finally be the watershed moment in which a full reckoning will take place. We’ve been here before, though, and we’ve seen such hopes fade and get overtaken by self-interested partisan political fights. And it’s happening again.
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Let’s recall the fall of 1991. The nation was transfixed by the confirmation hearings of the conservative African American jurist Clarence Thomas, whom President George H.W. Bush had nominated to be an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Nearing the end of what had already been a lengthy review by the Senate Judiciary Committee, a written statement sent confidentially to staffers for the committee chair, Senator Joe Biden (D-Del.), was leaked to the press. According to the statement’s writer, a law professor named Anita Hill who had worked for Thomas some years earlier, the nominee had a taste for hard-core pornography and a penchant for discussing it and other sexual matters with subordinates in the workplace, or at least with her; working under these conditions had made her extremely uncomfortable. These allegations of Sexual Harassment threatened to derail Thomas’s nomination and ruin his personal and professional reputation. Hill—who is also African American—was subpoenaed and appeared before the committee on October 11, sandwiched between appearances by Thomas denying the charges and defending his record. Millions of Americans tuned in, weighed in and fiercely debated who was telling the truth.
Two and a half years later, sexual Harassment allegations again rocked American politics. This time, they involved the new president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton. Paula Jones, a onetime employee of the state of Arkansas, filed a lawsuit in May 1994 alleging that Clinton, while governor of Arkansas in 1991, had commanded Jones to be brought to his hotel room during a state-sponsored conference. There, according to her, he behaved abominably and attempted to persuade her to perform sexual acts before she escaped, shocked and shaken. Once again, Americans were treated to explicit details of alleged sexual encounters and a bitter he said/she said exchange over the truth. And once again, Americans expressed strikingly divergent views toward a woman asserting actionable mistreatment by a prominent government official.
The scandals surrounding Thomas and Clinton produced competing, utterly polarized and often sensationalized story lines about each protagonist. Many of these drew on old stereotypes about wanton women and black hyper-sexuality, others on victimization plotlines sympathizers were eager to believe. Hill was a courageous heroine to women everywhere, or she was a shrew whose unrequited sexual obsession for her boss had prompted her to seek revenge. Thomas was a successful lawyer who had overcome racial barriers only to be persecuted by a hoax because he was a conservative and a Christian, or he was a bullying boss with some twisted erotic tastes. Jones was a brave ingénue defending her dignity, or she was slutty trailer park trash out for fame and money. Clinton was a brilliant politician with desperate enemies, or he was a mendacious playboy whose slick affability masked a gross sense of sexual entitlement. Whatever the facts in either case—and none of the charges were definitively proven in either—both expanded the nation’s interest in sexual harassment and fostered discussion of women’s rights, workplace boundaries and the reach of the law. Far from unifying Americans in a shared commitment to dignity for female workers, however, these events resulted in an intensely partisan discussion that produced no shared understanding of the facts.
Many other divisive developments around gender and sexuality were occurring in this same period, as an organized religious right continued to rise and mobilize conservatives against a wide range of feminist and progressive causes. Sex education controversies persisted in school districts across the country. Conflicts over abortion remained potent, and mass marches organized by both sides attracted large crowds to Washington, D.C.: the 1989 and 1992 pro-choice March for Women’s Lives and the 1990 pro-life Rally for Life each attracted hundreds of thousands of people. The AIDS crisis brought with it a backlash against gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and a growing LGBT rights movement was rising. All of these issues generated tumultuous hostility in the 1990s—the so-called culture wars. But among all the battles that resulted from that hostility, nothing better revealed the hardening—and increasingly politicized—divisions among American Christians over matters of sexual morality than did the linked sexual harassment scandals ensnaring Thomas and Clinton. For while Christian conservatives rallied solidly to Thomas’s side against Hill in 1991, they doggedly supported Jones against Clinton, raising a new, religiously inflected outcry against sexual harassment at the very time that it served their own political ends.
The harassment debates of the 1990s revealed a coming of age in the sexual politics of the Christian right, as conservative Christian leaders found a way to shift from a purely “anti” politics—anti-sex education, anti-abortion, etc.—to a politics that blended a defense of public propriety with a selective, politically expedient quasi-feminism. That position sprang out of a selective concern regarding sexual harassment, a concern that was surely earnest to a degree but that also served broader goals of electing candidates sympathetic to the moral vision of the Christian right. In navigating the sexual harassment debate, conservative Christians both appropriated and distanced themselves from contemporary feminist commitments and ideas. They harnessed outrage over sexist mistreatment of women without, for instance, rocking the patriarchal power structures of their own churches. In so doing, they flipped from merely opposing “sexual harassment” as an idea cooked up by lefty feminists to deploying it selectively in defense of Christian virtue. That shift helps explain why, by the end of the Clinton presidency, Americans had lost any consensus that might have been forged regarding sexual harassment or the definition of modern feminism: These had been turned into political weapons used on both sides of the aisle.
Many conservative Christians saw feminists as the real troublemakers in the Hill-Thomas debacle, and their analysis aligned precisely with the critiques that had been emerging from Christian right leaders for decades. Writing in the conservative Protestant periodical Christianity Today a month after Thomas’s confirmation, the evangelical Christian leader Chuck Colson blamed the lies promoted by Hill’s supporters on the “militant feminism” that came from a “diabolical source” opposed to God, calling feminism a force that undermined “the very notion of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman.” Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, who famously scorned Hill’s supporters and other feminists as “femi-Nazis,” argued that the hearings revealed “the extent to which feminists and their political allies are willing to go to advance their proabortion, militant leftist, antimale agenda.” Hill lied, Limbaugh claimed, and liberals were either too dumb to see that or too ideological to care, holding a hypocritical “double standard” that looked away from the egregiously harassing behavior of liberal men such as Ted Kennedy to push their own interests.
To these Christian conservatives, despite her own claims to Christian faith, Hill was a liar pure and simple—a shill to the special interest groups who invented her tall tale—and sexual harassment was a laughable charge. Gary Bauer’s Citizens’ Committee ran ads on television that showed mud being splattered on Thomas’s face; other ads likewise paid for by conservative religious and political groups similarly claimed Hill’s charges were the invention of abortion-rights-forever feminists out to smear Thomas’s good character. Most agreed with the outburst of one Republican senator during the confirmation hearings who, while saying he took the issue seriously, called Hill’s charges “this sexual harassment crap.” This was a pretty standard view of feminism among conservative Christians during the Thomas hearings: sexual harassment claims could still seem laughable and overblown, or the fault of feminist political correctness. Limbaugh insisted that feminists were hypersensitive enough to insist that merely “looking at someone is sexual harassment,” that “all men are rapists” and that “all sex is rape.” To the extent that sexual harassment was a problem—mostly for children forced to grow up in a sex-obsessed culture—liberals were to blame; for real grownups, though, it was no problem at all.
Scorched-earth partisanship notwithstanding, the confirmation hearings were the jumping-off point not only for evolutions in sexual harassment law but also for renewed public interest in stories about victims. Hill’s account had struck a deep chord in working women across the country, many if not most of whom could conjure memories of harassment on the job. By many measures, women outraged by Hill’s treatment at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee provided the margin of victory in the 1992 election that swept Bill Clinton into the presidency alongside the new women legislators. The number of sexual harassment claims filed with the EEOC and its state counterparts more than doubled between 1991 and 1998, going from 6,883 to 15,618. Hill, who never brought formal charges against her supervisor and, by her account, had never intended to go public, wound up being a national symbol of the sexual harassment cause, albeit a deeply divisive one. Ironically, if her testimony helped get Clinton into the White House, it also facilitated the conditions of his 1998 impeachment.
In May 1994, Jones filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton that asked for $700,000 in damages. While working as an Arkansas state employee during his governorship, she was alone with him in a Little Rock hotel room, she alleged, and Clinton had fondled and attempted to kiss her before dropping his pants and requesting oral sex. Her accusations against him included unwanted touching, penile exposure and threats against her if she did not acquiesce. Clinton’s sexual escapades had made news since long before he won the presidency, but this brutish behavior was shocking stuff. Almost immediately, Jones became a household name across the nation.
Jones’s sexual harassment allegations against Clinton captured the energetic attention of conservative pundits, politicians and religious leaders and inexorably shifted the public conversation around harassment claims. Many conservatives plainly believed that Jones’s case against Clinton was credible in a way that Hill’s allegations against Thomas were not. There may have been evidence-based reasons for this assessment, but it was hardly clear that evidence was the driving engine of this shift. The change of heart concerning sexual harassment seemed to reveal more than the progression in recognizing the seriousness of that crime. When “sexual harassment” was seen as a feminist—and therefore liberal—issue, few conservatives engaged sympathetically with the idea. Few, after all, had delved deeply into questioning whether Hill might be telling the truth, and what should be done if she were. It was Jones’s case against Clinton that opened the door for conservatives to express indignation on behalf of women against a man who would sexually harass them—especially if that harasser were a Democratic president of the United States. Clinton opponents seized on the image of the president as a sexual predator and wielded it for political advantage.
The Clinton sex scandals changed the way conservatives talked about sexual harassment and women’s equality in the workplace. They had been no fans of feminism before, but now they were expressing outrage at the sexual mistreatment of a woman by a man with power over her job. Conservative Christian legal organizations came out in support of Jones and pointed out the politics on the other side, criticizing the deafening silence of many feminist groups and leaders—a stark contrast to their earlier support of Hill. The Reverend Patrick Mahoney, national media director of the combative anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and executive director of the Christian Defense Coalition, called women’s groups “shameful” in their refusal to entertain Jones’s charges. These groups made an intriguing shift: After arguing when Hill was in the spotlight that women brought harassment on themselves, religious conservatives were now adopting feminist arguments about women’s equality.
The acts that Jones attributed to Clinton were far worse, ethically and legally, than anything Thomas allegedly said or did to Hill. So if the same groups that avidly promoted Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination—and worked to demolish Hill’s standing as a means to that end—later worked as aggressively to defend Jones against President Clinton, perhaps they simply saw clearer truth and greater injustice in the second case. Possibly their minds had been opened to the brutal realities often faced by working women on the job, exposed to crudeness of the most disgusting kind. Maybe they were just finally fed up with sexual harassment and the vulgar loutishness of entitled male bosses who thought they owned the world and every body in it.
Or maybe that’s just religion, sex and politics. On December 19, 1998, a month after Jones and Clinton had reached an out-of-court agreement—meaning that Clinton ultimately never admitted any fault—the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach President Clinton on two charges: perjury and obstruction of justice. The winding path that led to this historic vote was plowed by the special counsel Kenneth Starr and included a multitude of alleged abuses by the president—including the failed land deal known as Whitewater, the firing of travel agents in the White House, alleged misappropriation of FBI files and, above all, the sexual harassment case of Jones, which ended one month prior to the impeachment vote. It was through Starr’s wide-ranging investigation that Clinton’s office affair with Lewinsky came to light, thanks to the phone conversations Linda Tripp taped between her and the White House intern and submitted to Starr; and it was Clinton’s denial of that affair that paved the way to impeachment. Starr was the Texas-born son of a Church of Christ minister and, at this time, an active member of the independent evangelical McLean Bible Church. He oversaw the eponymous report that turned “the once clear line between public and private behavior” into “a big, sloppy lipstick smear,” in one journalist’s words, by detailing the Clinton-Lewinsky affair “down to the kinkiest details.” The right had succeeded in what had come to seem an obsession: presidential destruction and absolute humiliation.
The report and impeachment vote were salvos in the ongoing culture war over sex, and conservatives reveled in it. Richard John Neuhaus, the Catholic priest and editor of the conservative journal First Things, had advocated impeachment for the purification of the nation, calling for an “enormous emetic” that “would purge us.” Robert Bork, the judge whose own nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court had been derailed by liberal and feminist groups, said an impeachment would be a good thing to “kill off the lax moral spirit of the sixties.” The National Review demanded Clinton’s impeachment as a cure to what editors decried as the “womanly ‘sogginess’ that pervades our culture and ‘undermines masculine intractability that serves as a bulwark for republicanism.’” And Lamar Smith, a Republican congressman from Texas, advocated impeachment to “set an example for our children and grandchildren.” Or, as the Wall Street Journal editorial board mused, praising Starr for his persistence in going after Clinton despite the invective thrown his way for it, “Who better to bring Bill Clinton to justice than a hymn-singing son of a fundamentalist minister?” In the end, Clinton survived to the end of his presidential term, as his 1999 Senate trial failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority to convict and remove him from office. But it had been a sordid spectacle.
What remained of Clinton’s sex scandals was less an increased awareness of sexual harassment than increased polarization among Americans who held conflicting views of the significance of his sexual behavior, depending on their political commitments. By the end of the 1990s, Americans were well aware that they were divided by two warring understandings of sexual morality that were profoundly politicized. One side had staked its claim on public propriety and traditional virtue, wedded to a desire to oppose a president who supported abortion rights and LGBT rights, at least moderately more than his conservative counterparts. The other side, averse to moral crusading on sexual matters, valued sexual freedom and drew a line between private behavior and public concern, wedded to support for a president and his feminist spouse who favored liberal causes. These were not consistently pure philosophies—there were hypocrisies, contradictions and blind spots on both sides—but they offered genuine differences in overall priorities and worldviews. The broader war over Clinton, including but by no means limited to sexual harassment, revealed and continued to shape that divergence of worldviews extending to a whole range of gendered issues as they impinged on the political realm.
In the end, the Christian right successfully utilized the Clinton scandals to expand and solidify its power, leading up to the 2000 presidential election of George W. Bush, the first self-described evangelical Christian elected with the full backing of a mature religious right. But the election was extremely close: Bush actually lost the popular vote by a slim margin to his Democratic rival, Al Gore, and errors and irregularities in voting procedures in the state of Florida left the results in doubt for more than a month before a Supreme Court decision determined the outcome. Liberals and progressives were incensed, but the right had won, thanks in no small part to the mobilization of Christian conservatives spurred by sex.
It’s no wonder, then, that the current debates over sexual harassment—whether by Donald Trump, John Conyers or Roy Moore—are driven overwhelmingly by partisanship. Democrats threw Franken to the wolves in part to embarrass Republicans over Moore, who stands accused of far worse offenses. But it’s a fair question to ask whether they would have done is if Minnesota had a Republican governor, who could appoint a GOP successor. Many of us still hope a reckoning will come this time, at long last, and those in power will receive appropriate punishment when they abuse it, no matter their political party. But we’ll all have to acknowledge that we are primed to believe the accounts of those with whom we share affinities and to disbelieve those with whom we don’t.