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Have We Sold Out Feminists, or Forgotten How to Call a Jerk a Jerk?

It hurts to see the religious right using Clinton's behavior as a way to undermine the women's movement.

October 11, 1998|ADELE M. STAN | Adele M. Stan is a contributing editor to Ms. magazine and editor of "Debating Sexual Correctness: Pornography, Sexual Harassment, Date Rape, and the Politics of Sexual Equality" (Dell, 1995)

To much of the world, Bill Clinton is a child of the '60s, the personification of the era and the causes that it spawned--civil rights, women's rights and gay rights. Despite his centrist posturing, Clinton threw down the gauntlet from the outset, treating his election to the presidency as a referendum on the values that emerged out of the '60s, the very values on which the Christian right has waged its culture war. This more than anything is why, as a feminist, I am steaming mad at the president. With the Monica mess, he handed the enemy not only the ammunition but the gun to aim at those of us who have endured the ridicule and vitriol of the right wing's culture warriors for the last couple of decades.

Here is the part where I'm expected to condemn the president for his callousness toward women and then qualify it with some tortured explanation of how the Monica mess differs from sexual harassment. But I don't care about what the president did to Lewinsky or what she did to him. I've dealt with my share of cads and, as best as I can see, that's what the man is. What I care about is what Clinton did to me and my colleagues in the trenches. He sold us out for a romp with a randy young woman who had too little to lose.

Were it not for the sexual revolution and the women's movement, the religious right would have virtually no reason for being. The religious right, in fact, was formed out of whole cloth by a handful of secular veterans from Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign in a power grab after the Vietnam War put a damper on public enthusiasm for curing the world of communism. Goldwaterites were savvy enough to harness the horror felt in some quarters over the prospect of women holding power, never mind the notion of gay people acting like gay people in the light of day. (The only Goldwaterite to miss this bandwagon was the good senator himself.)

Anyone who has doubts over the setbacks accorded liberalism by the president's recklessness need only have attended the Christian Coalition's "Road to Victory" conference last month. At the meeting, the coalition's most energized in years, 4,000 conservatives heard an all-star roster of the foes of liberalism demand Clinton's resignation. Speaker after speaker used the president's sexual mores as the prime example of the liberal ethos, that which permitted "the destruction of pre-born children" and the erosion of parental rights.

Coalition founder Pat Robertson got a few chuckles when he referred to the president as a "poster child" for the '60s. Far more painful were the words of Gary Bauer, head of the anti-gay, anti-choice Family Research Council and potential presidential candidate. "I think the sexual revolution has been a disaster, particularly for women and children. Bill Clinton is a product of that age," Bauer explained. "If the way he has treated women is considered progress, then give me something other than progress."

>As a result of the Clinton scandal, we may indeed get something other than progress. Before the outbreak of the current pox on the White House, the religious right was falling in on itself, fraught with internal strife between purists and pragmatists. The strife still exists, but so does a rallying cause. The public may not care about the president's morals, but the soldiers of the religious right do. They, unlike most other Americans, manage to get to the polls to vote.

The president appears to be in an apologetic mood these days. But to the activists who made possible the last few decades' gains in human rights, he owes more. He owes a commitment to rectify the potential harm his behavior has caused the cause. He needs to organize the grass roots. He needs to see that his constituency votes. He needs to do work far more difficult than putting on a tux and attending a gala.

As Bauer explained, "Half the country . . . feels the last 30 years have been a pretty good thing. And the other half of the country thinks it's been a disaster. And I think that a lot of American politics, for the foreseeable future, is actually going to be a debate about that." It's a debate that only months ago, we thought we'd nearly won.

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