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Feminists Against Women

The sordid history of famous feminists shaming victims of sexual abuse

Phyllis Chesler
October 16, 2018
Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images
First Lady Hillary Clinton delivers a speech as her husband President Bill Clinton listens.Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images
Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images
First Lady Hillary Clinton delivers a speech as her husband President Bill Clinton listens.Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images

Just yesterday, Hillary Clinton insisted that Bill did not abuse any power when he allowed his intern, Monica Lewinsky, who was half his age, to sexually service him. Hillary’s words are beyond belief and beyond embarrassing.

As someone who has studied sexual violence against women for nearly 50 years, I am deeply troubled to see it used for partisan political gain. Doing so inflames anti-feminists, but more important it cheapens the momentum of the #MeToo movement and, I fear, will make it harder, not easier, for the next rape victim to successfully press charges.

My latest book, A Politically Incorrect Feminist, deals with this issue in depth and at length. In my day, most women in America were routinely sexually harassed as well as sexually assaulted. We were taught to blame ourselves. We also understood that if we complained we would not be believed or we’d be further shamed. We learned how to tolerate hostile workplaces, hostile public spaces, and hostile home environments. Many of us became tough survivors. Some, especially incest victims, fell through all the cracks.

All this was forgotten or, rather, this was knowledge that was systematically disappeared. By the mid-1980s, if not sooner, our best and most radical feminist work was no longer being taught in universities. The #MeToo movement had to reinvent the feminist wheel.

Being raped is something that a woman never forgets—especially if she’s a feminist leader because she understands that rape is an act of violent domination meant to humiliate and traumatize a woman. Being sexually harassed and raped by your employer—when you need to keep the job—consigns a woman to a special circle of hell.

A rape victim bears up under the weight of it, absorbs the blow, and tries to move on. Some women cannot do it; they break down and break apart. But even someone who can numbly, dumbly move on may still be dimly and occasionally haunted by shame or sorrow forever after.

A child who is raped by her father can also move on, but an incest victim never forgets and never forgives the mother who did not protect her, sold her for rent money, refused to believe her, and ejected her from the family when her protests became too public. Most incest victims do not rage against their rapist fathers as much as against their mother’s intimate betrayal.

Such traumatic events are difficult to discuss. The victim herself is reluctant to re-enter the memory swamp. It can literally make her sick. The eyes of non-therapists and nonfeminists glaze over. Feminist therapists are trained to listen—but good therapy takes a long time, and the details really matter—they’re all that matter.

In an era in which women who allege sexual violence are supposed to be believed—I, too write about being sexually harassed and raped by my boss at the United Nations. What haunts me, is that two icons of American feminism, Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem, (who were also my friends and allies), covered up my rape, made common cause with my rapist, and ostracized me for whistleblowing.

Yes, they did. it gives me no pleasure to expose them—and I do not think that what they did means that feminism is all wrong. Morgan was the real offender, the quintessential opportunist. Steinem merely covered for her. By so doing, Ms. magazine gained a lock-hold on the “territory” of international feminism.

A decade later, Steinem seemed to have learned her lesson, at least when a conservative judge, Clarence Thomas, was about to be appointed to the Supreme Court. She stood with Anita Hill. But she did not stand with me—nor did she stand with Paula Jones, Juanita Broderick, or Monica Lewinsky (who alleged no crimes) when it came to Bill Clinton’s sexual predation and peccadillos. In fact, Lewinsky was mocked by some leading feminists, “mean girl style.” She has written about this in Vanity Fair.

This was as awful for her as was her friend, a much older woman, Linda Tripp’s original betrayal. Psychologically, women are very hurt by the women whom we believe to be our friends when they turn on us. Bystanders, the supposedly “good” people, are clearly remembered by the victims of far more terrible crimes.

Towards the end of 2017, in the pages of The New York Times, Maureen Dowd called out Gloria for defending Bill Clinton’s abuse of power and priapism. Dowd wrote: “Institutional feminism died when Gloria Steinem, Madeleine Albright and other top feminists vouched for President Clinton as he brazenly lied about never having had a sexual relationship with ‘that woman’—Monica Lewinsky.”

Were Clinton’s other known victims believed? Did they receive justice? What about the unknown victims?

Also, toward the end of 2017, an article by Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal described Gloria’s role in protecting Bill Clinton. She cited an article by Caitlyn Flanagan in the Atlantic that said that by the 1990s, “The [feminist] movement had by then ossified into a partisan operation.” Flanagan reminded us of the famous March, 1998 op-ed Gloria wrote for The New York Times in which she “slut-shamed, victim-blamed, and age-shamed” the victims and “urged compassion for and gratitude to the man the women accused.” She pointed out that Steinem characterized the assaults as “passes.”

On Nov. 30, 2017, Gloria unwisely responded to these critiques in an interview in the pages of the Guardian. She is quoted as saying that “what you write in one decade you don’t necessarily write in the next.” I interpret that as her saying that the times were different then, that we didn’t know then what we know now. This is not true. Feminists knew all about rape and sexual harassment back then.

This was the Gloria whom I had encountered in the early 1980s. Back then, she covered up Robin’s opportunistic collaboration with a rapist and her betrayal of his victim; she knew that I viewed her, Gloria’s, failure to confront my rapist together with me (this is what I’d asked her to do) as a failure of feminist courage, feminist principle, and personal loyalty. She knew that I thought that a man like my rapist would keep preying on women. This all made no difference.

Last week, I wrote directly to a leading feminist who is very close to Gloria and asked her to consider using her considerable influence with the major mainstream and feminist media on behalf of my work. I’ve heard nothing back. I did so because there seems to be some kind of mainstream media blockade against my book. At least 40 major left-wing, feminist and mainstream outlets have not even attacked this work. To them, It does not exist. I remain a dissident in the American Gulag. That is the subject of another piece entirely.

And now, what I feared may come to pass. The conservative media which, so far, has reviewed this book very, very positively, will soon pick up this particular story and run with it. Feminists had many months to acknowledge the way in which feminist leaders have sometimes behaved just like mothers in incest families. They could have “owned” it, spun it, challenged it, learned from it. They, and the media that they’ve influenced have so far failed to do so.

I am not responsible for what may happen next.

Phyllis Chesler is the author of 20 books, including the landmark feminist classics Women and Madness (1972), Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman (2002), An American Bride in Kabul (2013), which won a National Jewish Book Award, and A Politically Incorrect Feminist. Her most recent work is Requiem for a Female Serial Killer. She is a founding member of the Original Women of the Wall.