Towards the end of last week, there was a considerable amount of discussion in the feminist blogosphere about Bill Clinton and breasts. Specifically, the breasts of Jessica Valenti, executive editor of Feministing and one of the most highly regarded voices in the online feminist community.
For those who haven't followed the kerfuffle, here's what happened. Ann Althouse,a feminist law professor, wrote a scathing attack last Wednesday on the progressive bloggers who lunched with Bill Clinton last Tuesday. Althouse focused in on a photo of the group with the former president, a picture in which Jessica of Feministing is standing right in front of the former president.
Click to enlarge.
Last Wednesday, Althouse implied that the arrangement of the bloggers with Clinton was not random, an unmistakable reference to Jessica's appearance and posture. When called on her crass sexism by Jessica herself, Althouse responded:
I'm not judging you by your looks. (Don't flatter yourself.) I'm judging you by your apparent behavior. It's not about the smiling, but the three-quarter pose and related posturing, the sort of thing people razz Katherine Harris about. I really don't know why people who care about feminism don't have any edge against Clinton for the harm he did to the cause of taking sexual harassment seriously, and posing in front of him like that irks me, as a feminist. So don't assume you're the one representing feminist values here.
(Three-quarter pose and "related posturing"? Althouse is perhaps interested in auditioning to be a judge on America's Next Top Model.) In any event, it was a truly nasty thing to say. As someone who has great admiration for Jessica Valenti (Feministing is perhaps the most essential read in the entire "femosphere"), I'm furious. And as someone whose poses are regularly misinterpreted (tell me, do I look like a "leering pedophile" in this picture, as an MRA suggested in a now-deleted comment? Or how about this one?), I think it's asinine to insinuate something fundamentally unprofessional about someone's posture in an awkwardly posed candid photo.
Jessica has defended herself admirably, and more good commentary on the Althouse incident can be found at Feministe by Zuzu and Jill. But I am not blogging today in defense of Jessica, though I stand (or do I pose provocatively?) in solidarity with her. I'm interested in blogging about Althouse's other comment:
I really don't know why people who care about feminism don't have any edge against Clinton for the harm he did to the cause of taking sexual harrassment seriously, and posing in front of him like that irks me, as a feminist.
What ought to be the feminist response to Bill Clinton? It's a good question, and one often asked by conservatives who sense (inaccurately, I think) a certain level of hypocrisy. Why didn't feminists as a group support impeachment? Why don't feminists shun Clinton as a pariah given his personal behavior?
From the standpoint of this progressive feminist, Bill Clinton fascinates and exasperates me. He has infuriated and disappointed me many times, and he's also won my enduring admiration. As has often been pointed out, Clinton was very "lucky in his enemies." Like most liberals, I always figured that any man who could create apopletic rage in so many right-wingers must be a godsend to the left. Of course, that was part of Clinton's masterful skill -- he could always point out to feminists and progressives that he was hated by the same right-wing that hated our causes. We assumed that meant that he would support our agendas. Most of the time, he didn't --or at least, he offered only tepid support for real progressive justice. But we always hoped that his enemies hated him so much because they saw something we couldn't see, which we fantasized was his "inner lefty."
Bill Clinton's presidency also comes sandwiched in between the two Bush presidencies. Whatever his failures as a progressive, we on the left are still kind to Clinton because we compare him to the only other presidents we've ever known. For most of us under 40, we've only really been politically aware for three or four presidents: Bush II, Clinton, Bush I, and for those of us over 30, Reagan. Of that trio or that quartet, Clinton was by far the best on women's issues in terms of his appointments and policies. If we compare Clinton's actual accomplishments to an authentic feminist agenda, he was a bit of a disappointment. If we compare him to his predecessors and to his immediate successor, he's the lion of Judah!
But what of Monica Lewinsky, Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones and the other women whom Clinton (at best) treated shabbily? Are feminists wrong not to hold a track record of sexual misbehavior against him? I don't want to rehash the events of the impeachment era, and what was and wasn't said in 1998 and '99. But I do want to make clear that most feminists I know were deeply appalled by Clinton's misconduct. His relationship with Lewinsky was profoundly unethical,and his treatment of his wife tremendously disappointing. To put it in the terms I use often on this blog, in Bill Clinton's case, there was a profound disconnect between his language and his life.
But we don't judge our leaders merely on their private behavior! There's more to male feminism, too, than sexual fidelity and propriety. Whatever his youthful indiscretions, no one suggests that George W. Bush has been unfaithful to Laura. His professional relationships with the likes of Karen Hughes and Condi Rice suggest that he is quite comfortable with women in positions of power. But his overall track record on feminist issues has been fairly weak, particularly from the standpoint of the pro-choice/reproductive rights movement. In Bush's case, his faithfulness to his wife doesn't earn him "brownie points"; it doesn't mitigate his woeful record on public issues that matter deeply to feminists. By the same token, Clinton's execrable behavior in private towards women is objectionable and offensive. But his private sins don't vitiate the public good he accomplished and is continuing to acoomplish.
It's possible to condemn someone's private behavior and laud someone's public actions. The reverse is equally true. Though our goal ought always to be harmony between how we live in the limelight and how we live behind closed doors, all of us -- including feminists -- must be pragmatic. In this case, pragmatism can mean rebuking Clinton's bad private behavior while honoring his commitment to many of the causes and issues that are of value to us. Human beings are complex, multi-faceted creatures; of few is this more true than of Bill Clinton. Is he a man who has repeatedly abused his power in sexual relationships with subordinates? Yes. Is this a man who has been an important ally on other issues? Yes. He's not either a good or a bad man --he's manifestly both. And we can honor the good in him and lament the bad at the same time without contradicting ourselves. We can work with him when he's right, and excoriate him when he's wrong. And we sure as hell can take a picture with him.
For the record, I will happily pose for a picture with anyone. If the local leader of the Klan came by, I'd stand for a photo with my arm around him and grin for the camera, and then promptly give him a good earful. If the camera only captures my smile, and not my rebuke, that's not my responsibility. Bill Clinton is not in the Klan. * Clinton's private failings are better known than the failings of any other human being alive. But compared to the other living men who have held the office of president, he has clearly been the one most committed to the overall goals of the feminist agenda. And for that, he deserves our -- qualified -- gratitude.
*Sometimes I post things I ought not to have. Once they've been commented on, though, I don't delete them -- just
strike them as evidence of my foolishness.