Lipstick Feminists

By Austin, Elizabeth | The Washington Monthly, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Lipstick Feminists

Austin, Elizabeth, The Washington Monthly

Sexual power is a pistol loaded with only one bullet

I feel kind of sorry for Monica Lewinsky. It's not that I consider her a victim, by any stretch; when a young woman heads to Washington with the expressed intention of earning her presidential kneepads, she forfeits any future right to claims of sexual exploitation. But neither do I see Lewinsky as a post-feminist power girl, wielding her feminine wiles in a brazen bid for an easy G-15 rating. To me, she's just a painfully sentimental, pathologically vulnerable, sexually available young woman who honestly believed her expensive haircut and starry gaze were enough to bring the Leader of the Free World to his knees. If I weren't a feminist, I guess I'd call her a pathetic little slut.

That's a hard thing for me to admit, and a difficult word for me to use. But over the last few months, I've been horrified to hear a soprano chorus of "lipstick feminists" crow over the exploits of Monica the Power Babe. In one recent New York Times op-ed, headlined "Monica Lewinsky, Career Woman," Katie Roiphe complained that we lack a term for "the opposite of sexual harassment, when a person of less power uses her sexual attractiveness or a personal relationship with a person of greater power to get ahead." Frustrated by her stalled career, Roiphe reports, Lewinsky "used her personal power over the President to get results," threatening him with public exposure if he didn't land her a new job, pronto.

"There is nothing inherently wrong with Ms. Lewinsky's way of thinking, or with her attempt to translate her personal relationship with the President into professional advancement," comments Roiphe, who is apparently unfamiliar with the legal concept of blackmail. "It is a time-honored female tradition to use sexual power as a way to try to improve one's position in the world...."

That vision of the sexually unrestricted female as power broker has been getting a lot of play lately, and there's just enough truth in it to make it dangerous. God knows, we're all now painfully aware that powerful men can be rendered foolish and incompetent by sexual desire. And we've all seen second-rate Cleopatras convert their perilously high heels and profoundly deep decolletages into cars and condos--or at least, a promotion from bus girl to waitress.

But sexual power is a pistol loaded with only one bullet. Sure, Monica probably felt like Wonder Woman the first time the President beckoned her toward his gaping zipper. And when their sordid little liaison petered out, I'm certain she lay awake at night constructing elaborate scenarios in which L'Affaire Lewinsky would tumble the presidency, leaving her perched triumphantly atop the New York Times bestseller list. But look how it's all turned out: She's housebound and unemployable, while he still gets to decide which women are Secretary of State material and which are merely potential humidors. So how much real power did Monica ever wield?

The problem with Roiphe and the sisterhood of sluts is that they lack historical perspective. A couple of generations ago, the halls of government teemed with Lewinskys--called "monkey girls" (at least in Illinois), because they hung on to their jobs with their tails. Down in Springfield, the monkey girls observed a touching Sabbath ritual: Every Friday night, they'd line up at the railroad station to kiss their lawmaking lovers goodbye as they left to spend the weekend at home with their constituents--and their wives.

Back then, the definitions were clear--the men were studs, and their women were sluts. And when the monkey girls found themselves on the mossy side of 35 with neither resumes nor reputations, society's judgment was bleak: You made your bed, now lie in it.

That double standard became a rallying cry for the women's movement, which battled to redefine sex roles and insisted on women's equal right to sexual gratification. But when the sisters declared sluthood obsolete, they found themselves lacking the vocabulary to describe fetching young women who managed to snag jobs as statehouse typists and stenographers without submitting to the drudgery of secretarial school. …

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