Gloria Steinem would not mount the same vigorous defence of Bill Clinton today that she offered in a controversial 1998 article that downplayed accusations of harassment against the then president, the feminist icon has told the Guardian.
But Steinem said she did not regret writing the New York Times article in the first place.
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“We have to believe women. I wouldn’t write the same thing now because there’s probably more known about other women now. I’m not sure,” she said on the red carpet of an annual comedy benefit for the Ms Foundation for Women, of which she is a founder.
“What you write in one decade you don’t necessarily write in the next. But I’m glad I wrote it in that decade.”
It was her first extended comment on the op-ed since it became fodder for a revitalized debate about the string of sexual misconduct claims against Clinton, and the political forces that helped him survive them.
“If all the sexual allegations now swirling around the White House turn out to be true, President Clinton may be a candidate for sex addiction therapy,” read Steinem’s 1998 essay, titled Feminists and the Clinton Question.
But, “even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass,” she continued. “President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.”
Her words have come under scrutiny amid a national reckoning over sexual harassment and renewed questions about whether the multiple accusations should have doomed Clinton’s presidency.
At the time of her letter, former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones was suing Clinton for sexual harassment, and Kathleen Willey had just given an interview to 60 Minutes about Clinton making an unwanted sexual advance.
Clinton, Willey claimed, kissed her on the mouth during a private meeting to discuss job opportunities. She pushed back away from him, she claimed, and he touched her breasts and placed her hand on his erect penis.
The gravest allegation came one year later, when former campaign volunteer Juanita Broaddrick accused Clinton of rape. Clinton has always denied non-consensual sexual contact.
Steinem’s op-ed has been held up as a prime example of how Democrats and their allies reflexively rallied to Clinton’s defense, an argument made most forcefully by the writer Caitlin Flanagan in the Atlantic.
“It slut-shamed, victim-blamed and age-shamed; it urged compassion for and gratitude to the man the women accused,” Flanagan wrote. “The notorious 1998 New York Times op-ed by Gloria Steinem must surely stand as one of the most regretted public actions of her life.”
But if those regrets exist, they are not Steinem’s.
“I’m glad I wrote it at the time,” she said. “Because the danger then was we were about to lose sexual harassment law because it was being applied to extramarital sex, free will, extramarital sex, as with Monica Lewinsky.”
Clinton had an affair with Lewinsky but both agree it was consensual.
Steinem appears to have been referring to the bruising legal battle that began when Jones, a former Arkansas state clerk, sued Clinton, then the sitting president, for sexual harassment. Jones claimed Clinton in his role as Arkansas’s governor summoned her to his hotel room, where he touched her, tried to kiss her, dropped his pants and asked for oral sex.
A judge later dismissed Jones’s case, saying Clinton’s alleged behavior, while “boorish and offensive”, did not meet the legal definition of sexual harassment.
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In her op-ed, Steinem was even more generous toward Clinton.
“Clinton seems to have made a clumsy sexual pass, then accepted rejection,” Steinem wrote, adding “there appears to be little evidence” of Jones suffering psychological damage.
Steinem’s thinking on Jones and her accusations seems unchanged today.
Asked if Jones’s accusation amounted to something other than a “free will” encounter, Steinem replied, “Paula Jones, in spite of all the pressures on her, said very clearly, ‘He said to me, I wouldn’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do.’ That was part of her testimony.
“The problem at the time was, the sexual harassment law was in danger,” she said. “If Clinton had resigned, that would have endangered the law.”
Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe III on August 19, 1946, in Hope, Arkansas. He was the only child of Virginia Cassidy Blythe (1923-94) and traveling salesman William Jefferson Blythe Jr. (1918-46), who died in a car accident three months before his son’s birth. In 1950, Virginia Blythe married car dealer Roger Clinton Sr. (1908-67) and the family later moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas. As a teen, Bill Clinton officially adopted his stepfather’s surname. His only sibling, Roger Clinton Jr., was born in 1956.
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In 2001, Clinton became the first president to be married to a U.S. senator. Just days before he left office, first lady Hillary Clinton was sworn in as the freshman senator from New York.
In 1964, Clinton graduated from Hot Springs High School, where he was a musician and student leader. (In 1963, as part of the American Legion Boys’ Nation program, he went to Washington, D.C., and shook hands with President John Kennedy at the White House, an event he later said inspired him to pursue a career in public service.) Clinton went on to earn a degree from Georgetown University in 1968. Afterward, he attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship. In 1973, he received a degree from Yale Law School.
At Yale, Clinton started dating fellow law student Hillary Rodham (1947-). After graduating, the couple moved to Clinton’s home state, where he worked as a law professor at the University of Arkansas. In 1974, Clinton, a Democrat, ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives but lost to his Republican opponent.