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I read Sarita Sarvate’s article “What About Bill” with a combination of amazement, amusement, and disappointment. Ms Sarvate seems t suggest that Hillary Clinton’s failure to show “compassion to any of the women” who slept with her husband makes her less of a feminist. I beg to differ. All of my married female friends are ambitious feminists with excellent careers. And every single one of them would want to claw out the eyes of any woman who dared to come near their husbands. In fact, I think some of them would contemplate murder. I don’t understand why Ms Sarvate thinks that the women who were part of President Clinton’s extramarital affairs deserve any kind of empathy from Mrs Clinton. They don’t. No one expects wives to be supportive of their husband’s mistresses. Being a feminist does not mean you have to blindly support and cheer on women who are behaving badly and who have hurt you deeply. That is not what feminism stands for.
Feminists are not saints. They have the same hopes, dreams, emotions, and fears that all normal people have. I think Mrs Clinton’s attitude towards the women cheating with her husband makes her a far more authentic woman. We must stop holding feminists specifically, and women in general, to impossible standards of behavior. Hillary’s devotion to her husband and commitment to her marriage doesn’t make her any less of a feminist. Instead, I think it is tacit acknowledgement of the limitations of feminism.
And here’s what I mean by the limitations of feminism: finding a great guy to marry is really, really hard. For many women, it’s impossible. Mrs Clinton found a great guy to marry in law school. She has not been willing to walk away from him since, no matter what he did to her and their marriage. That decision is completely understandable, specially to a feminist, because the reality is that there are not many men who are willing to be with strong, capable women with feminist ideals. President Clinton was one of the few. New York City and many other American cities are packed with extraordinary, hardworking women who remain single for their entire lives because they cannot find a man at their level to be with them. President Clinton is at Mrs Clinton’s level, and then some. I am sure she treasures that immensely, because that kind of partner is almost impossible to find.
I have many friends who are married to men who do nothing other than sit at home, unemployed and resentful, while they work 12 hour days and also take care of the children. But they want companionship in their lives and that is why they stay married. Many of them tell me that as bad as their marriages are, they will take that over being single any day of the week. Because being a single woman sucks. It is lonely, it’s hurtful, it’s isolating, and it’s frightening, whether or not you are a feminist. One of my friends fights with her husband every single day, and thinks of leaving him constantly. But when she collapsed and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, the first person standing by her side was her husband. And when she was discharged from the hospital, unable to move for several weeks of recovery, the person who made sure she had good meals, administered injections, and held when she cried was her husband. What’s a few affairs compared to that? I don’t know. The thing is, it’s not for me or Ms sarvate to answer. It’s for the wife to decide, and that is an incredibly personal decision – even for a woman in as bright a spotlight as Mrs Clinton.
Did Mrs Clinton let down feminists by staying with her husband? Or did she highlight how little feminism does to help women with the reality of their personal lives, and the nearly impossible choices they have to make as they fight to find happiness? Eliot Spitzer is surely not the only wealthy American man in his 50s consorting with prostitutes young enough to be his daughter. Why do so many middle-aged women women strive desperately to save their marriages even when their middle-aged husbands engage in sexual liaisons with women young enough to be their daughters? Because the cold hard reality is that their husbands will easily be able to find a replacement wife, while they will be alone for the rest of their life. And that just sucks. Feminism has no antidote for this reality.
I worked in New York for about 2 years and then in Washington DC for lose to 6 years. I expected to work with strong, independent women who were proud of their accomplishments and led self-sufficient lives. To some extent, I did find that. But I also found a lot of fear and compromise. I discovered that government agencies are flooded with resumes of women who are partners at investment banks and law firms, because they are in desperate search of work-life balance. They recognize that they will not be able to hang onto their marriages or families if they do not find a job that gives them to invest in looking good and paying attention to their husbands. But I realize now that they knew something I didn’t – that despite their fabulous careers and impressive Ivy League degrees, they were only a few shaky steps from being alone, and that being alone was the definition of failure. Their husbands are central to the very core of their existence, and they will do whatever it takes to keep them by their side. That includes dieting carefully, exercising vigorously, and botoxing regularly. Because if they let their guard down, there will be plenty of younger, beautiful women eager to step in and fill the void. And then they will have nothing. No career will keep you from being lonely at night. No career will take care of you when you are sick. You need a husband for that.
Is any of that true to feminism? Probably not. But it is the reality for many women, and there are no easy answers. Middle-aged men with Ivy League degrees and 6 figure salaries will never be in want of female companionship; the same cannot be said of women with the same credentials. In fact, the opposite is true for women with the same resumes – they struggle to prove that they are worthy of companionship. Feminism simply doesn’t have an antidote for that reality. Mrs Clinton could have left her husband easily. He would have found a replacement within the month; she would have found it much harder.
In the wake of such reality, it seems particularly harsh to judge Mrs Clinton so brutally for her marital choices. It seems even more harsh to criticize her for not empathizing with the other women in her husband’s life. Why should Mrs Clinton listen to Ms Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk about the horrific experiences of 1998? I personally have a lot of empathy for Ms Lewinsky. I cannot even begin to fathom the horror that she went through, and the mark that it has left on her life. But it is easy for me to feel for Ms Lewinsky because she and I have have no personal involvement. She never slept with my husband. But it was extremely personal for Mrs Clinton. It was her husband and her marriage. Should Mrs Clinton feel bad for what happened to Ms Lewinsky? Nope. Mrs Clinton was not the cause of any of Ms Lewinsky’s troubles. All of the trouble and humiliation that Ms Lewinsky went through is solely due to Kenneth Starr and his Republican cronies and sponsors, to include the revolting woman who recorded Ms Lewinsky’s confidential conversations. I am quite sure Mrs Clinton would have preferred that none of it have taken place, considering the impact that it had on her husband’s presidency and her marriage.
Mrs Clinton’s personal choices about her marriage probably did dent her standing among feminists, but they had little to do with her election loss. She lost the election because she failed to do what her husband had so successfully done in the past: build a bridge to working class white people. They voted for Trump in droves because he accurately captured and voiced all of their deep-seated emotions, beliefs, and fears. Feminists may have mixed feelings about Mrs Clinton, but we still voted for her, because we knew that Trump was an unspeakable alternative. And we also knew that Mrs Clinton, for all her faults and marital drama, cares deeply about women’s rights and human rights. She is an authentic voice for feminism; I have never doubted her belief in the feminist movement for one minute.
Last but not least, I found it amusing that India Currents interview with writer Amish Tripathi was published in the same edition as Ms Sarvate’s article. In his interview, Mr Tripathi states the following: “The feminist movement has been driven by the Western paradigm, not the Indian way. And this Western way has, over the past 200 years, morphed into the black/white or a right/wrong narrative. They tend to approach most issues from that perspective. There is no approach of reaching towards a balance …. There should be freedom for everyone to make a choice. This is the heart of male/female equality. Balance is important.”
Why can’t we let Mrs Clinton make a choice about her marriage without throwing her out of the ranks of feminists? Why can’t she be married to a cheating husband and still be an advocate for women’s rights? Does her life have have to be interpreted in such a strict black/white narrative? Or is there room for for human fallacies that are driven by the shortcomings of feminism in the personal lives of women? Perhaps it is time for us to stop being so judgemental about the personal choices of women in public life. Mrs Clinton’s marriage may not live up to our ideals of what the perfect feminist union should be, but even with all of its perceived shortcomings, she clearly does not want to give her marriage up – and she has the ultimate right to decide. After all, isn’t that what feminism is about?