Is Monica Lewinsky a Feminist Icon?
Monica Lewinsky is the punch line to the joke of our age: young woman falls for powerful man, young woman is forever marked by her sexuality, man is allowed the understanding of sexuality as integral to his personhood.
Needless to say, Bill Clinton has not suffered any longterm ramifications to his infidelity. Nay, in fact, he remains locked in a societal consciousness that regards him as one of the best presidents in recent memory, one who’s masculinity has been underscored by his ability to bed a younger woman, and all the while preserve his high-status marriage with current democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton.
But to Monica Lewinsky, who was clearly enamored—if not unabashedly in love—with the then-president, one sexual act was enough to overhaul the course of her previously promising life, and render her name and image little more than a chest-heaving chuckle for a titillated American public.
Regardless of the fact that a very real emotional connection informed Lewinsky’s relationship with the president, as was clear in the phone calls recorded without her knowledge by Linda Tripp, the idea that one woman’s sexuality is enough to condemn her to a life of reclusion should alarm us all.
In a personal essay published in Vanity Fair June of last year, Lewinsky detailed the horror of growing up (she was just 22 years old when she fell for the 49-year-old president) post-Clinton. In her own words, Lewinsky was “arguably the most humiliated person in the world” those years after the scandal broke.
She was betrayed by former U.S. civil servant Tripp, whom she then regarded as a friend. Humiliated, she was reduced to little more than a political bargaining chip to be leveraged by both sides of the political spectrum.
The reduction of Lewinsky’s entire being to, as she remembers being called in her essay, the “blow job queen” is a chilling blow to female empowerment, as well as the modern feminist movement.
In 1998, Lewinsky was abandoned by feminists. She writes:
“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.”
In other words, Lewinsky was sacrificed to preserve the piecemeal advances women were making in government. As president, Bill Clinton had appointed more women to political office than had any other previous administration. With help from Hillary, Clinton was responsible for spearheading our nation’s first attempt at instituting universal healthcare, as well as unpaid leave for workers to care for their family in times of crisis.
The very fact that feminists were discouraged from solidarity with Lewinsky is enough to make the point that unequal gender privilege came into play while defining exactly how the two lovers were depicted in the media—a media that was in its nascent years of the internet revolution.
Today, over 15 years after the President famously branded Lewinsky, “that woman” (cue closed-fist, exposed thumb gesticulation) the conversations I have with my flag-waving feminist friends shifts the focus of Lewinsky as a crestfallen pariah to somewhat of a feminist hero.
To explain: Lewinsky bore the brunt of a male-dominated, patriarchal society which routinely used sexuality to define women’s status in society.
“I became a social representation, a social canvas on which anybody could project their confusion about women, sex, infidelity, politics, and body issues,” Lewinsky wrote in her Vanity Fair article.
With the letter “A” evermore embroidered on her infamous blue dress, Lewinsky has nonetheless managed to pursue her masters in social psychology, and more recently, position herself as a spokesperson against cyberbullying—herself one of the very first people to experience the online tormenting that has entered our social narrative as a endemic issue worthy of updated legislation.
She was scapegoated to preserve the waning years of the Clinton administration, she was systematically contracted to little more than mistress and a maven, and she was forced to retreat from public life altogether.
But with the growing anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s upcoming bid for the democratic nomination last year, Lewinsky has resurfaced. “In 2008, when Hillary was running for president, I remained virtually reclusive, despite being inundated with press requests,” she wrote.
“When I hear of Hillary’s prospective candidacy, I cannot help but fear the next wave of paparazzi, the next wave of “Where is she now?” stories, the next reference to me in Fox News’s coverage of the primaries. I’ve begun to find it debilitating to plot out the cycle of my life based, to some degree, on the political calendar.”
Four election cycles after former president Bill Clinton’s infamous impeachment and eventual acquittal, Lewinsky is taking back control of her own narrative.
She wrote that in the media, “I was the Unstable Stalker (a phrase disseminated by the Clinton White House), the Dimwit Floozy, the Poor Innocent who didn’t know any better,” but today, after years spent trying to forge an identity off the pages of gossip columns and celebrity websites, Lewinsky has returned—on her own terms.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: AMANDA BURKE
Currently a journalism student at Boston University, formerly a line cook with a side gig selling vintage jewelry. I am interested in the way our narrative species communicates and consumes information and images, and the power of storytelling to connect us all. I am passionate about social politics and policy, and hope one day work for an organization that shares my dedication for feminism, culture, and the arts.