Politics

Why It’s So Uncomfortable for Feminists to Confront Hillary Clinton About Bill

And why they must do it anyway.

Former President Bill Clinton and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton stand at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2017 in Washington for President Donald Trump's inauguration.
Former President Bill Clinton and former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton stand at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, 2017 in Washington for President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For all the powerful abusers exposed and censured over the past 12 months, one of the biggest accomplishments of the #MeToo movement has been the reintroduction and reframing of past misconduct. Bill Clinton has been the subject of the most prominent of these retroactive reckonings, with feminists and progressives interrogating the Democratic Party’s continued embrace of a man who has been credibly accused of sexual harassment and assault, and also, while president, treated an intern like a disposable genital wipe after engaging her in an extramarital romantic and sexual affair.

It hasn’t been easy to find a productive way into Bill Clinton Reckoning 2.0, given his lack of official political power and the unwillingness of old-school Democrats to explicitly condemn him. Further complicating the endeavor is Hillary Clinton, a fraught symbol of feminism’s accomplishments and failures and a painful reminder of the overt sexism Americans voted for in 2016. To exhume Hillary’s role in Bill’s alleged decades-long exploitation of women—as the #MeToo movement must if it intends to fully confront the forces that supported a sleazeball and alleged rapist for decades—seems a nearly impossible task in a political climate that rewards unabashed liars with Supreme Court seats and proud misogynists with rising approval ratings.

In social movements, however, the hardest tasks are often the most essential. The 2016 election season found Michelle Goldberg arguing in Slate that although Juanita Broaddrick’s rape allegations against Bill Clinton were credible, her claims that Hillary Clinton had silenced and threatened her were not. But Goldberg, like most feminists at that time, still ignored what Hillary’s forever-endorsement of Bill revealed about her character and commitment to women’s rights: The stakes were too high to direct fire at the wife of an alleged sexual abuser when another alleged sexual abuser was her presidential opponent. The act of questioning Hillary’s decision to stand by and defend Bill would’ve evoked the humiliating slights conservatives have subjected her to for the past two decades: the “Hillary Sucks But Not Like Monica” paraphernalia, the portrayals of the former secretary of state as a ball-buster too frigid or dykey to properly satisfy a male partner. It’s difficult to imagine a good-faith assessment of Hillary Clinton’s role in enabling Bill Clinton’s abuse when bad-faith attacks still dominate the conversation, as they did when Trump invited Bill’s accusers to a presidential debate. The line between holding a woman to task for the company she keeps, and blaming her for her husband’s actions, was too fine to discern during an election cycle that had already blinded us with rage.

Today, with the #MeToo movement maturing and both Clintons speaking out about Bill’s affair with Lewinsky, that line is coming into focus. In an interview with CBS correspondent Tony Dokoupil, Hillary said that affair did not constitute an abuse of power because Lewinsky, who was in her early 20s at the time, was “an adult.” “But let me ask you this,” she added. “Where’s the investigation of the current [president], against whom numerous allegations have been made, and which he dismisses, denies, and ridicules?” Hillary’s attempt to deflect criticism echoed Bill’s response to similar questions in June, when he said recent reassessments of his actions have come from progressives who are merely “frustrated that they’ve got all these serious allegations against the current occupant of the Oval Office and his voters don’t seem to care.”

The problem with the Clintons’ whataboutism circa 2018 is that, unlike the 2016 presidential election, this isn’t a Clinton vs. Trump contest. Both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump can be too amoral for public office, and there’s more than enough bottled-up anger in various women’s movements to target both a problematic old fave and an imminent threat to democracy. Trump’s colossal shortcomings as a leader and repulsiveness as a human being were enough to spare Bill two years ago. In 2018, it’s become clear that a go-along-to-get-along mentality will never keep sexual abusers out of top positions in government. With Trump in the White House and Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, feminists have far less to lose.

Now that probable 2020 presidential contender Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has said Bill Clinton should have resigned after his affair with Lewinsky, it’s looking like the mainstream Democratic Party—to say nothing of its burgeoning left wing—may finally be getting around to exiling Bill from its inner sanctum. And yet, any attempt to parse Hillary Clinton’s role in Bill’s evasion of punishment for his offenses inevitably devolves into a vortex of contradictions and co-existing truths. Hillary exhibited atrocious moral, political, and intellectual judgment by staying with Bill after every revelation of his alleged and admitted sexual misconduct.

But also: It would have been unthinkable for the wife of a governor or president to leave her husband while he was in office, and then go on to build a public-facing career in a man’s world. But also: By standing by Bill, Hillary did a grave disservice to Lewinsky, Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and by association, all women hoping for allies as they fought to keep sexual harassers and rapists out of the workplace. But also: How could anyone expect a moderate feminist to disavow a man she loved, who had made a fair bit of political progress for women, when so many other feminists, Gloria Steinem famously among them, did not? But also: The fact that one of the world’s most visible feminists has defended one of the world’s most visible accused abusers for 20 years and counting has undoubtedly delayed an already overdue reckoning with the abuses of men in power. But also: Hillary, too, has suffered for her husband’s transgressions; to impose additional consequences on her—even rhetorical ones—while Bill evades any meaningful accountability only reinforces the gendered double standards women in politics must already surmount.

In the Trump era, we’ve landed on a word to describe the silent, smiling acquiescence of women close to the president. We say they are complicit—willing instruments of both the president’s anti-woman policy agenda and the broader male-supremacist ideology he promotes. For all the harm they caused poor women and families of color, Bill Clinton’s policies did not approach Trumpian levels of racism and punitive sexism. But on a personal level, Hillary Clinton performed much the same role in the Clinton administration as Melania and Ivanka Trump do today. It feels deeply unfeminist to ask Hillary to revisit her husband’s sexual misdeeds and answer for her role in mitigating their impact on his status in public life. But if feminists intend to complete a full audit of Bill Clinton’s place in the history of men getting away with serial exploitation, we must do it anyway.