Mothers Who Think: Does President Clinton feel women's pain -- or cause it?

Feminist author Barbara Ehrenreich lashes out at a White House workplace that seems organized around President Clinton's 'problem.'


Lori Leibovich
March 19, 1997 2:44PM (UTC)

The sexual charges swirling around President Clinton have presented a peculiar political conundrum for feminists: Should they grudgingly throw their support behind a president who, while largely sympathetic to their agenda, is an alleged skirt chaser? Or should they chastise him for his indiscretions with the same vitriol they reserved for conservatives such as Clarence Thomas?

Whatever feminists decide, support for the president among American women -- and some female politicians -- seems to be waning. With the latest allegations made by former White House employee Kathleen Willey on "60 Minutes" adding insult to injury, groups such as the National Organization for Women finally seem to be making some noise.

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Time magazine columnist Barbara Ehrenreich was making noise a long time ago. As one of the only feminists to criticize the president when Paula Jones' accusations first surfaced, Ehrenreich has consistently gone on the record deploring Clinton's behavior toward women and decrying the sexually charged atmosphere at the White House.

Ehrenreich has written several influential feminist books, including "Complaints and Disorders: The Sexual Politics of Sickness" and "Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War." A longtime radical and labor activist, she is one of the sharpest voices within the left wing of the women's movement, often calling on her sisters to develop a class-conscious view of American society. Salon talked with Ehrenreich about how class issues influence feminism, the gray areas of sexual harassment and Clinton's political hypocrisy.

After Kathleen Willey's appearance on "60 Minutes," NOW President Patricia Ireland explicitly criticized President Clinton's behavior, whereas after Paula Jones came out with her allegations, NOW didn't aggressively speak out. Why?

The least flattering interpretation would be that it is because Kathleen Willey is upper-middle class, she is tastefully made-up and she is a Democrat. Of course, what I'd like to believe is that because I've criticized NOW for so long about not responding to Paula Jones or the [Monica] Lewinsky case, that they are listening to me [laughs].

Seriously -- are feminist groups finally responding because they are being hammered by people like you on the Op-Ed pages for being hypocritical?

Well, besides myself, [New York Times columnist] Maureen Dowd has been pretty tenacious on this, so they might indeed be feeling pressure. Patricia Ireland's statement was very legalistic. It was a good, strong statement, but whether laws are broken or not, [I wish she would have said] "We as feminists find this distasteful."

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What separates the Willey case and the Jones case in terms of their "distastefullness"?

I haven't really thought that through. If true, the Paula Jones thing is even more disgusting.

Is there a double standard? Are women more sympathetic to Kathleen Willey because she looks better?

Most of the women who are called upon to opine on these issues, including myself, are upper-middle class and it is easier for them to identify with a professional-looking woman. I don't see a whole lot of women called on to comment who look like they just got off the shift at the factory. In our society we don't hear from working-class people. The whole media world is dominated by upper-middle-class women.

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Will Kathleen Willey's allegations cut into the support that the president has managed to maintain among American women throughout the Lewinsky affair?

That's what everybody is saying, but I don't claim to have any special insight into public opinion. My concern, since the Lewinsky case, has not been whether he did something criminal, because it seems that there wasn't any criminal activity in terms of sexual harassment -- my concern is, what kind of workplace is the White House? And I think I have a right to that concern -- this is not some private corporate headquarters. This is our business. This is the people's business. The picture we've gotten is of a workplace where rewards are distributed to women, in part, on the basis of their looks or their sexual availability. That is not what we've been striving for. We want workplaces where we're not judged by our bodies, or how short our skirts are, but by the work we do.

The White House is not a place I would want to work. This is not a place where I would want my daughter to work. Monica Lewinsky got this amazing amount of presidential attention. She got personal career counseling from Vernon Jordan. She visited (United Nations representative) Bill Richardson. And nobody has ever said she was a hot-shot, dynamo policy intern.

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Do the letters that Willey sent to the president, calling herself his "number one fan" and signed, "fondly" -- does this make her any less credible?

It's the same thing we saw with Anita Hill and no feminists seemed to complain much about that -- she maintained a relationship with Clarence Thomas in case it would help her with her career. Neither of these women came forth with criminal charges -- finally something happened that made them want to speak up. But I don't really know how the letters will change things.

Do you think these letters illustrate the gray areas of sexual harassment cases -- that Willey and the president might have been mutually interested and flirtatious with one another before the incident? Does that change things?

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Well, if she was filing a criminal charge, we'd have to examine all of that in court. But what bothers me is an observation made in either Newsweek or Time saying that White House aides have learned to hire pretty assistants and put those assistants' desks closest to the corridor where Clinton is likely to see them. They do this to bring attention to their programs and their area of work. We have an impression of a White House where some people were utilizing the president's problem in that way, and others like [intern coordinator] Evelyn Lieberman have sort of been on cop duty, establishing rules like interns can't look him in the eye, and rules about skirt length. You get a sense of a White House that is not only dealing with Iraq, Bosnia, welfare and so on. But one that was also organized around this man's problem. And that is very, very, disturbing.

Why should we as Americans be concerned with the president's "problem"?

We should be concerned because of his hypocrisy. This is the guy who signed the welfare reform bill that budgets money for abstinence training for poor women. This is a guy who signed another bill to give special government money to schools that would teach abstinence-only and no birth control. He has been a standard bearer of the far right on "family values" issues. I think he's got it coming.


Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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