Susan Estrich

A feminist gropes for consistency.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Some found it surprising that one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most outspoken defenders against charges of groping and harassing women was Susan Estrich, the feminist law professor, who has, by her own account, “spent much of my professional life fighting to reform the law regarding rape and protect women against sexual harassment.”

The week before the election she attacked the Los Angles Times for running an exposé about the charges. She complained that the paper had cited outdated accusations, which is a little odd when she herself has argued so passionately against the need for “fresh complaints,” saying it often takes women a long time to conquer their fears and report a sexual crime; she also took the newspaper to task for seeking out women who hadn’t come forward, when she herself has written extensively on how hard it is to come forward in cases of sexual assault. It may or may not be relevant to all this that she was one of the Democrats later named to Schwarzenegger’s transition team.

One could ask how Estrich went from condemning Clarence Thomas’ whispered vulgarities to defending Arnold Schwarzenegger’s whispered vulgarities in a single decade. Is Estrich a hypocrite, a political opportunist? Or have her views really changed? And if so, what does that tell us about her and the kind of feminism she practices?

Estrich made her name as the youngest woman ever to be a tenured Harvard law professor and as the first woman to run a presidential campaign, in 1988, when she worked for Michael Dukakis. She is now a legal and political analyst on Fox News, and she wrote a very likable and reasonable book called Sex & Powerand a diet book “for smart women,” which I imagine is likable and reasonable, too. She is arguably the most pragmatic and appealing voice in mainstream feminism (more intelligent than Gloria Steinem, less emotional than Naomi Wolf).

Back in 1987, when Estrich wrote her elegant, tightly argued book Real Rape, she was pretty hard-core. She wrote that not only does “no” mean “no” when it comes to sexual advances, but that “yes” sometimes means “no” as well: “Many feminists would argue that so long as women are powerless relative to men, viewing a ‘yes’ as a sign of true consent is misguided. For myself, I am quite certain that many women who say ‘yes’ to men they know, whether on dates or on the job, would say ‘no’ if they could. I have no doubt that women’s silence sometimes is not the product of passion and desire but of pressure and fear.” But that was then, and this is now.

As it turns out, Estrich’s unlikely support of Schwarzenegger has a precedent: When Clinton had his difficulties with Paula Jones, Juanita Broderick, Kathleen Willey, Monica Lewinksy, et al., Estrich rallied to his defense. She said in Slate and elsewhere that she was sure that he would not have done it. Why? For one thing, “Bill Clinton was my friend.” For another thing, “He didn’t have to.” This type of reasoning would never have made it past the Estrich of Real Rape,the Estrich who passionately supported Anita Hill,theEstrich who coined the phrase “the nuts and sluts defense.”

Estrich’s radical shifts of position on sexual matters mirror the bizarre turnaround of the feminist movement in general. (Take Gloria Steinem’s astonishing op-ed in the New York Times, defending Clinton against Kathleen Willey. After pit-bull-like attacks on Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood, her argument, essentially, was “It’s OK if it was just a little grope.”) Of course, what made the feminists’ defense of Clinton’s behavior such a strange spectacle was that they were (in some cases personally) responsible for the worldview that led to his impeachment. They were responsible for the misguided and dangerous idea that “the personal is political,” for the overheated, McCarthyite atmosphere surrounding sexual issues in the early ‘90s.

But the climate of the country had changed since the Anita Hill hearing. The hysteria surrounding sexual crimes had abated. All of a sudden, the idea that the office was full of lurking male sexual predators ready to pounce on delicate, offended career girls was no longer everybody’s obsession. People began to wish that the “personal” could be personal again. Writers from David Mamet to Michael Crichton wrote works of art devoted to the excesses and absurdities of the feminist preoccupation with sexual harassment. By the time a towheaded 6-year-old was suspended from school for kissing a little girl on the cheek, most of the country had come to think the women’s movement had gone too far; and the movement retreated from the absolutism surrounding issues like sexual harassment and date rape; feminist pundits began to muse on the paradoxes of sexual power. By the time Monica Lewinsky showed her thong to the president, even ardent, party-line feminists were saying it was condescending to women to view her as a victim. When conservatives called them on their sudden change of mind, these feminists obfuscated their former positions, glossing over everything from glaring inconsistencies to outright hypocrisy.

When it comes down to it, Estrich is a good feminist. She is far more balanced, articulate, and intellectually rigorous then most of the people who fit into that category; she rises above them with a sense of humor and humility. But she is nonetheless someone who hangs around with the pack. In the early ‘90s the party faithful wore “I believe Anita Hill” buttons. And by the late ‘90s, the party faithful thought a few dirty jokes by the water cooler weren’t such a big deal; it must have felt very warm and comforting to be part of the fashionable hysteria about sexual harassment; to “tsk tsk” together about Long Dong Silver and the pubic hair on Coke cans, embraced in the righteousness of the common cause. And Estrich was very much a part of the club; she was a woman with shrewd political instincts and not a huge amount of imagination.

But at least Estrich addresses the moral complexities involved in the kind of flip-flopping mainstream feminists do all the time. She takes responsibility for the opinions she held in the past and admits to and puzzles over her own inconsistencies. She writes in Sex & Power that Clinton “was being wrongly accused. And the rules I had supported and helped to create … were the means of waging that attack.” She talks about how her attack of Clarence Thomas “came back to haunt many of us years later, when the issue was not crude jokes but sex between the president and an intern.” She argued vehemently against using the victim’s mental history or sexual past in court, but now she writes, “Imagine if it were your husband or brother. … Would you want to know if the woman making the accusation had been hospitalized for mental illness? Is there anything you wouldn’t want to know about her?” She nakedly states the political motivations behind some of her shifts of position, explaining, “[T]he core of the dispute is not about what’s welcome and what’s unwelcome in terms of sexual harassment, but whose ox is being gored.” Estrich has the grace to be honest about her reversals and the ambiguities they raise. That alone lifts her above myriad pundits, chatterers, and feminists.

What the evolution of Estrich’s views does tell us though, is that the kind of burning melodrama that surrounds sexual issues vanishes as quickly as it appears; that a woman who can write passionately about “women’s silence” one minute can later take a man’s side. It is precisely the opinions that seem the most rigid, absolute, and emotional that are subject to the whims of fashion.